Across the West, a risky movement of fringe groups and mining and other development interests are buying off politicians to “transfer” America’s national wildlands to the states where they can be sold to private companies for profit.
Shoshone National Forest is an example of a public land that could be seized under some land takeover proposals in Wyoming. Credit: David Cohen, flickr.
By any measure, Wyoming is one of our "wildest" states. Nearly half its acreage is managed as part of our national public lands, including one-of-a-kind gems like Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. But this bounty of natural wonders is under attack, as anti-conservation politicians try to turn millions of acres of public lands over to the state. One recent proposal mandated that all national public lands other than national parks and wilderness areas be turned over to the state by the year 2017; others have asked for studies and committees that set the stage for such seizure efforts. One example of local land control going wrong: Wyoming's Shoshone Cavern National Monument, delisted in 1954 and handed back to the state, was eventually transferred back to federal jurisdiction after maintenance of the site proved too costly.
If the land takeover movement catches on in Wyoming, we could see a disastrous chain of consequences that ends with people locked out of their most cherished wildlands. These are some of the top reasons why we must fight back to ensure that never happens.
Reasons to fight against land takeovers in Wyoming
1) Public lands could lock ordinary Wyomingites out. Wyomingites love to get out and enjoy the outdoors. In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, state residents took about 191,000 hunting and fishing trips, pumping close to $300 million into the economy. This leads us to the most basic reason that public land takeovers would be terrible for Wyoming: Public lands handed over to the state might not retain the open access that visitors once enjoyed. For example, overnight camping is forbidden on state lands. Other rules for using these tracts may change at the whim of the state land commissioners board.
Since state lands are managed to maximize revenue, rather than to balance recreation and other uses, it is also highly likely that some of these tracts would be sold off, privatized or otherwise set aside with a big "no trespassing" sign. A report from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership expressed concern that land takeovers could close off access to sportsmen, specifically, and identified a high-profile example of a land that could be seized in Wyoming: the Shoshone National Forest, a prized getaway for hunters.
2) Public land seizure could hurt Wyoming's economy. If the state seized national public lands—and in all likelihood, ended up selling some of them off to maximize revenues—it would not only hurt Wyoming's sportsmen, but the outdoor recreation economy they support. Each year, outdoor recreation generates $4.5 billion in consumer spending in Wyoming, directly supporting 50,000 jobs (about $1.4 billion in wages and salary). If access to the land is cut off for some people, that crucial slice of the pie could grow smaller. Additionally, analyses have found that counties in the West with protected national public lands have better economies than counties without.
3) Wyomingites value public lands, reject land seizures. Given the strong outdoors identity of Wyoming—63% of residents consider themselves to be a hunter or angler, and 67% are regular campers--it should come as no surprise that ordinary people in the state love their public lands. Various surveys confirm this...and also that they want these places to stay as-is, not seized by the state or potentially sold off. The land takeover movement is a bad fit for Wyoming:
- 94% of Wyomingites say that a "healthy, outdoor lifestyle" is a factor in their decision to live in Wyoming; 87% identify the "ability to live near, recreate on and enjoy public lands like national parks and forests."
- 97% of Wyomingites say that public lands like national parks, forests and monuments are an “essential part” of their state’s economy.
- 74% of Wyoming voters agree that national public lands help attract high quality employers and good jobs to the state.
- 87% of Wyomingites say that despite budget problems, we should find a way to fund protection of the state’s land, water and wildlife. In the event of state seizure, such concerns may fall by the wayside.
- 54% of Wyomingites see public lands as "American places," belonging to everyone in the nation, versus just to the state.
- 66% of Wyomingites oppose proposals to sell off public lands--and more than half are "strongly" opposed.
- 54% of Wyoming voters oppose giving state governments control over national public land (despite the fact that a majority of Wyomingites generally trust their state government to "do what is right").
- 72% of Wyoming voters oppose selling significant holdings of public lands, such as national forests, to reduce budget deficits.
- 71% of Wyoming voters would be less likely to support a political candidate who backs selling public lands to reduce budget deficits.
- More than 1,000 sportsmen in Wyoming have reportedly signed a petition opposing state land takeovers
4) Leaders and groups oppose Wyoming land takeovers. It isn't only "ordinary" Wyomingites who cherish public lands and outdoor recreation and remain wary of land takeover attempts; public institutions, non-profits, community leaders and others follow suit. Commissioners in Teton, Albany and Sweetwater counties—which contain parts of Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and several national forests and wildlife refuges--have adopted resolutions opposing public land takeovers, and the executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association has said that in general, counties are opposed to a widespread takeover of public lands. Some individual towns--like Jackson, the largest in Teton County--have similarly made their opposition to land takeovers official. Wyoming Assistant Attorney General Jeremiah Williamson, analogizing Wyoming's situation to a land takeover bill introduced in Utah, has said that such approaches rely on a "rejected reading" of the Constitution.
The Wyoming Wildlife Federation said that transferring public lands over to the state, as proposed in one recent land takeover bill, “would essentially put them on the fast track for energy and mineral development.” The president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said during an event in Wyoming that the public land takeover movement "is the No. 1 threat to hunting and fishing,” The Casper Star-Tribune, the most widely read newspaper in the state, has editorialized against land takeover measures, calling public lands "the great equalizer" in Wyoming and demanding they be preserved as "an American tradition and a national treasure."
5) Wyoming can't afford to manage national public lands. Even if you found a way to dismiss all the other concerns about public land takeovers, you would still be left with one very fundamental issue: there is no way Wyoming would be able to afford to manage the lands it seized from federal agencies. Even Wyoming Rep. Mark Baker, who supports land takeovers, has admitted it could be an issue, saying "My constituents think it is going to bankrupt our county … They’re concerned with the maintenance and liability that goes along with maintaining these national lands." For an illustration of some of the issues that could arise, take a look at Wyoming's state parks system, whose budget has been cut several times in the last few years since 2008, forcing staff to skimp on basic management tasks. That does not bode well for any national public lands suddenly placed under the authority of the state.
Sportsmen, business leaders, rational elected officials and conservationists are standing together to prevent land seizure measures from becoming law. But they need support to show politicians that Americans won’t tolerate these privatization efforts in Wyoming or elsewhere. The threat is real, and now is the time to stand up.
Sign the petition to send a clear message that our national public lands belong to all of us, the people, and should remain that way forever.
INFOGRAPHIC: PUBLIC LANDS ARE GOOD FOR WYOMING