Some of America’s most spectacular real estate is available for anyone to visit and explore. No keys or passcodes are necessary. Just pull out a map, find a national forest, wildlife refuge, or wilderness and set out on your next adventure. That trip could be as simple as taking your family for a hike, going for a morning run or birding, or clearing your head with a fishing rod in hand.
Not only are public lands natural wildlife and recreation gems, they provide ecosystem services worth billions of dollars. For example, a whopping 123 million Americans rely on drinking water that flows from our national forests. Plus, those forests protect air quality for public health and welfare. Public lands are a direct financial asset for neighboring communities, too. Research by Headwaters Economics found that protected federal land in the West attracts people and businesses as well as new jobs and income.
The Public Land Heist
The diverse benefits of public lands make it all the more ironic that lawmakers in statehouses and Congress have been trying to give them away or sell them off. “We call it ‘the public lands heist’,” says Adam Cramer, Executive Director of Outdoor Alliance. “You would consider it stealing if there was a scheme to take away something that belongs to you. It’s more than a policy issue, it is a matter of right and wrong.”
In 2016, state legislatures introduced more than 20 bills to privatize or transfer federal lands to states, and Congress another half a dozen (along with countless amendments). And while many of the proposed public land giveaways are in the west, debates are emerging in the east as well. For example, in 2016, legislation was introduced that would have transferred a portion of Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to Puerto Rico for private development.
Photo: Outdoor Alliance
“The public lands heist is an enormous call to action for Americans, especially those who not only enjoy public lands, but derive a sense of identity from these places.”
In response, Outdoor Alliance is uniting the voices of outdoor enthusiasts to make sure public lands remain accessible for all to enjoy. The Alliance brings together bikers, climbers, skiers, paddlers, and hikers as advocates for keeping public lands in public hands. Outdoor Alliance has developed a database of trails, climbing routes, and waterways on public lands. It uses this information to help outdoor enthusiasts understand the threat posed by proposed public land giveaways. “We want kayakers in Idaho, mountain bikers in Washington, and climbers in Wyoming to know what public lands and trails could disappear,” says Cramer. “For example, in Idaho, we’re showing kayakers how the Lochsa and Payette rivers are vulnerable, and in Washington, the Kettle Crest trails could be lost.”
Diverse Values and Partnerships
Last year, thanks to Wilburforce Foundation partners like Outdoor Alliance, The Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Montana Wildlife Federation and others, tens of thousands of Americans spoke out in opposition to some of the nefarious and ill-conceived efforts to divest the public of its lands. Sportsmen and women and outdoor recreation industry leaders came forward in force. In Oregon, farmers and ranchers spoke out against the physical takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed extremists.
Said Cramer, “The public lands heist is an enormous call to action for Americans who enjoy public lands, who rely on them for their livelihoods, and who derive a sense of identity from these places. Our country’s conservation tradition is rooted in public lands being open and available to all – and we and our partners want to give people the tools to speak out on behalf of the places they love.”