When school was out for the summer in the suburbs of Manhattan where I grew up, my mom packed our little Subaru hatchback with sleeping bags, a tent, a cooler filled with fruit and sandwich meat, hiking boots, rain gear, and three kids, and headed West. Like generations before and since, we were off on the great American road-trip to explore the wonders of America’s national public lands—our national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, and wildlife refuges. Whether you live out West or just visit here, these lands touch your soul.
That these national public lands belong to all of us is a uniquely American privilege, one that is so central to our culture and spirit that it is easy to take for granted. But this privilege—our common inheritance—is coming under attack.
These lands belong to all Americans
Across the west, a small number of officials are organizing to seize public lands and transfer them to state ownership, after which our lands could be auctioned off to oil and gas drillers or sold for other development. One western county commissioner outrageously compared public land ownership to slavery. One state has actually gone so far as to pass legislation calling on the United States to surrender millions of acres of public lands belonging to all of us in all 50 states into the hands of that one state. In some states the attack is being presented in the form of a “study” asking loaded questions. In still other states, opponents of public land couch their attack as “concurrent jurisdiction.”
At stake is our right to share and enjoy the many wonderful acres of national public lands—everything from the plunging depths of the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the sweeping vistas of the Red Desert in Wyoming, and from the moss-covered trees of the Olympic National Forest on the Washington coast to the red-rock outcroppings and ancient ruins of Utah’s Cedar Mesa. Public lands come in all shapes and sizes—including tucked away historic sites like the Gold Butte Townsite in Nevada and the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico.
These are places that tell our shared American stories and unite us around the idea that these places collectively represent us as a nation. Our public lands are our birthright, and they belong to all Americans—rich or poor, near or far. We all share in the privilege to hike, camp, fish, hunt, and explore them. But with this freedom to enjoy them comes the responsibility to hand them down to future generations.
Photo (above, right): Scott Miller on one of his family's great American road trips (boy in the blue shirt, ca., 1977). Courtesy, Scott Miller.
Americans oppose public land sales
The idea of taking public lands out of public hands goes against broad popular opinion in the West. Rallies in support of public lands have drawn hundreds of people. A Colorado College poll released in early February found that conservation of natural areas for the benefit of future generations is a nearly universally shared value across western states—96% of those surveyed agreed. So it is no surprise that Americans broadly oppose selling off our national forests and other public lands.
Photo: In February, Coloradans gathered at the state capitol to protest efforts to take over public lands, by Mike Weissman.
The radical idea of taking America’s public lands out of public hands is not just a threat to outdoor enthusiasts in the West. As public lands managed for everyone, the mountains, forests, deserts, and grasslands of the West are available to you whether you live two hours away in Wyoming or Colorado, or a 2,000-mile car-trip away in New York. But if our public lands are transferred to the control of just a single state, Americans from other states could lose access to use and enjoy those lands. When our forests, monuments, and parks are sold or privatized, we would become trespassers on our own lands.
"... we would become trespassers on our own lands."
The national public lands of the American West were acquired by the American people in the early- and mid-1800s. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the 1848 cession of the Southwest that followed the Mexican-American War, and the other lands west of the Mississippi came at the great cost of bloodshed and American taxpayers' dollars. When the United States granted statehood to new territories years later, Congress gave millions of acres to the newly admitted states to be used for specific purposes like funding schools. Some states quickly sold many of their lands to private buyers. In other states, the lands have been retained for revenue generation, and public access is restricted.
But the United States retained other lands to be managed not just for the benefit of any one state, but for ALL Americans. From these public lands came many of America’s most famous national parks like Yellowstone, Zion, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Parks like these are popular travel destinations not only for residents across the country, but also for visitors from abroad, generating billions in revenue to state economies. Our national public lands also play a critical role in providing clean drinking water for tens of millions, as well as for recreation, clean air, habitat for wildlife, and much more.
Our public lands are too important a part of our heritage to succumb to this radical notion. As part of our work to preserve and protect wild areas across the country, The Wilderness Society is dedicated to keeping public lands in your public hands.
Scott Miller is The Wilderness Society's Senior Regional Director for the Southwest Region, which includes Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
Learn more about state land seizures