You Can't Sell What's Priceless

Utah isn't alone in its federal land grab

Of all the nutty ideas floating around the West of late—that Wyoming needs an aircraft carrier to prepare for the coming apocalypse, that Idaho residents should be allowed to lure wolves by using pets as bait, or that Yellowstone bison in Montana are “bio-terrorists” because they might cause brucellosis—none can match Utah’s on the incredulity meter.
Some in the Beehive State are abuzz about the current effort to seize control of all public lands within its borders except for national parks, wilderness areas, military bases and Indian reservations. But unlike the seasonal silliness in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, this Utah land grab has traction. The state Legislature passed a bill asserting eminent domain over public lands—our lands—and the governor has signed it, pledging a lawsuit if Utah doesn’t receive nearly 30 million acres by 2015.
The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are shrugging off Utah’s chest thumping as little more than election-year bluster. They view it as a revival of the failed Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, and are confident that any takeover effort will be laughed out of court.
Yet the very idea should give us pause, and ranchers, outfitters, guides and other small-business owners whose livelihoods depend on economical access to our public lands should be on the alert because parallel conversations have taken place in other Western states. Some Arizona state legislators keep pushing to add 25 million acres of federal lands and similar drumbeats echo across New Mexico and Colorado.
In Montana, Rep. Denny Rehberg, who apparently feels that 32,000 miles of roads on our Forest Service lands aren’t nearly enough, supports releasing the nation’s few remaining non-wilderness, roadless areas for development. This has flabbergasted a broad range of constituents who view open space as essential to their livelihoods and the Montana way of life.
Let’s be clear about motives: These politicians want our lands so their financial backers can mine, drill, pave and otherwise develop without having to deal with such pesky matters as clean air, clean water and other health safeguards. Special interests in Utah want to drill for oil and gas right next to national parks, and their counterparts in Arizona are itching for a uranium mine on the fringes of Grand Canyon National Park.
Not stopping at his own state’s borders, Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns has floated the idea of selling some of our national parks to private interests. Just think of the possibilities: Utah’s Arches National Park could be renamed Golden Arches National Park and leveled for a McDonald’s theme park. In California, John Muir’s favorite spot on the planet could be sold to Warner Bros. and renamed Yosemite Sam National Park. When in North Carolina, we could view the R.J. Reynolds Great Smoking Mountain National Park from the comfort of our cars on a new highway dubbed Tobacco Road.
Lest we forget, public lands provide us with clean water, clean air and essential wildlife habitat. These are the places where millions of Americans go to hunt, fish, hike, camp, ride, run, ski, pedal, photograph, explore or simply find solitude in a rapidly shrinking and increasingly noisy world. These lands provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars that benefit the economies of small rural communities. Above all, public lands are the embodiment of American freedom and individualism — places where anyone can go regardless of race, creed, color or stock portfolio. Our 750 million acres of public lands, much of it established more than a century ago by forefathers with wisdom and vision, sets our nation apart.
If anyone thinks wilderness locks up land, wait until all of us in the West get met by miles of fences, gates, padlocks, corporate signage and corner posts spray painted in bright orange. If you think government programs are Europeanizing this nation, wait until you have to pay a premium to hunt or fish on lands your grandparents once freely traversed. Do the simple math: More people plus less public land equals less access and more crowds on the few equal-opportunity landscapes we have left. All of which leads to more rules, regulations and expense for the average American.
Most of us recognize the economic, ecological and spiritual value of our public lands. A whopping 93 percent of Colorado voters recently polled sees them as essential to the state’s overall health. Sell our public lands? Seriously? For anyone who thinks that nutty idea will sit well on Main Street America, I’ve got an aircraft carrier onYellowstone Lake to sell you.

This essay first appeared in High Country News.