By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Cleveland National Forest, courtesy National Forest Service
April 6, 2015 (San Diego’s East County)—The Republican-controlled House and Senate have passed measures that would allow the sale or outright giveaway of most public lands –including national forests, federal wildernesses and wildlife preserves and Bureau of Land Management properties. Only Republicans voted for the language slipped into a non-binding budget resolution—which passed without a single Democratic vote.
The shocking news is revealed in a New York Times editorial by Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Lands, titled “Our Land, Up for Grabs.”
While it’s unlikely that President Barack Obama would support such an extreme measure, if a Republican president is elected in 2016 and Republicans maintains control of both houses of Congress, losing our cherished public lands such could be a very real possibility.
Here in San Diego County alone, that could mean the demise of: Cleveland National Forest, Otay Mountain Wildnerness, Hauser Wilderness, Pine Creek , Carrizo Gorge, Sawtooth Mountains Wilderness , Agua Tibia Wilderness, San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge , Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, McCain Valley National Recreation Area and more.
The two measures vary in just how far they would go. The Senate measure, which passed by a mere two-vote margin, would allow the federal government to sell or give away all federal lands to states or local governments that could auction them off, except for national parks and monuments. This could include bands of wilderness or forest lands surrounding national parks such as Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.
The House measure, which passed 228 to 119, would similarly turn over public lands to states and local governments to give them “more control over the resources within their boundaries” to lead to “increased resource production and allow states and localities to take advantage of the benefits of increased economic activity.”
That could mean opening up these protected lands to oil drilling, fracking, mining, or development for commercial, industrial or residential projects. It would be up to each state or local government to decide the future of these federal lands. Let’s not forget that in the recent budget crisis, California’s Governor was set to allow the closure and sale of 70 state parks (thankfully all but two were spared due to an improving budget and citizens’ groups that stepped forward to cover some operational costs.)
State and local parks could fall to the Congressional budget axe too, since next up the Land and Water Conservation Fund reauthorization vote looms, which provides money to partially underwrite state and local parks and recreation, conservation easements, and also money for national parks, forests and wildlife refuges. It expires September 30th if Congress won’t reauthorize it.
Ironically it was a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, who started the federal system for preserving lands for posterity for the public enjoyment, after his visits to Yosemite and Yellowstone inspired him to launch the national parks and national forest systems.
Over 400 million people a year visit our federal public lands, pumping $41 billion into the U.S. economy. But the real benefit is in giving Americans pride in our national heritage – our beautiful public lands –and an appreciation for the wonders of nature. Indeed, many species of wildlife could well go extinct if the federal government stopped protecting millions of acres of public lands.
Rogers concludes, “Rather than selling off the lands we all own…our leaders should listen to voters and find ways to protect more of the places that make America special.”