Public Lands Day sees #OurWild at a dangerous crossroads

Nantahala National Forest (North Carolina).

Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS)

Sept. 30 marks National Public Lands Day, but great struggles currently face wilderness, parks and public lands of all types in America.

Since at least Theodore Roosevelt, public lands have been an axiomatic presence in the American experience—they realize the democracy of our country's physical space.  

Thanks in part to people like him, a great portion of the U.S.' extraordinary natural riches are permanently set aside for the careful stewardship and enjoyment of all Americans. These places belong to the people, and not just the moneyed elite or private corporations.  

Public lands have been an important part of the American experience, and have usually not been seen as a political or controversial issue. The current political moment is different.

For the most part, this has not been a partisan or controversial idea, though individual leaders quibble on the specifics. In 1984, no less than Ronald Reagan called public lands "our patrimony"--"what we leave to our children." As he put it, our great moral responsibility is to leave such places to future generations exactly as is, if not repaired and improved. 

Public lands now face many threats 

In 2017, National Public Lands Day (Sept. 30) comes as these notions have been shaken to their very core, or even forgotten entirely by some of the country's most powerful people. President Donald Trump has helped usher in an age of pro-development and anti-conservation sentiment in which many figures from Congress to federal agencies down to state legislatures are actively trying to make our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas less public, less open and generally less conducive to pursuits beyond the ruthlessly commercial. 

Yosemite National Park (California). Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS)

In late September 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, once a politically conservative yet unabashedly pro-public lands member of Congress, groused about how much of the department is not loyal to the new regime. He went on to tell his audience, the National Petroleum Council, that he hopes to overcome that obstacle and push increased mining and drilling on public lands.  

Interior Secretary Zinke recently complained about staffers' disloyalty to Trump and said he wants to make it easier to mine and drill on public lands. 

But this is just one example. Zinke has also led a stunning, punitive "review" of national monument lands covering everything from Native American cultural sites to redwood forests. Trump's co-ideologists in both chambers of Congress have recently considered measures like the "Federal Lands Freedom Act," which greases the skids for states to drill on public lands with less oversight. Meanwhile, the "public land takeover" fringe aims to dismantle our grand American system of protected lands by taking them away from respected entities like the U.S. Forest Service and giving them over to bottom line-obsessed—and therefore sell-off-friendly--state governments. 

Amid political onslaught, Americans still love public lands 

Hearteningly, the American public at-large still loves the places so many of their elected officials are working desperately to undermine. The National Park Service shatters its own visitation records on an almost yearly basis, and outdoor recreation activity accounts for some $887 billion in consumer spending annually. In a Center for American Progress poll conducted shortly after the 2016 election, 91 percent of voters said protecting wildlands for future generations is an "important" priority, and even a majority of those who voted for Trump said they oppose privatizing or selling off public lands.  

Kofa National Wildlife Refuge (Arizona). Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS)

Furthermore, not all politicians have cast their lot with anti-conservation special interests. Recently, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) offered an anti-land seizure budget amendment that drew more than a dozen Republican votes, doubling the number of yeas from that side of the aisle since a nearly identical amendment failed in 2016.  

In this political moment, it can be easy to lose hope. That's why on September 30, National Public Lands Day, we're taking a minute not only to remember and enjoy the places we are fighting for, but to reflect on how deep the roots of the American public lands tradition really are. Thank you for supporting The Wilderness Society and helping us stand up for it in the face of tremendous odds.