Your wilderness, under siege

On the 26th March 2015, the United States Senate voted to pass SA838, a budget amendment which constitutes the first step in allowing the transfer of certain types of federal land into the stewardship of individual states and paving the way for the sale of these lands to private concerns.

In the immortal words of Brandt (of The Big Lebowski fame), “This is our concern, Dude.”

I first heard about this recent development during my last visit to Alaska, where a friend of mine intimated that the sale of National Parks to the highest bidder was an imminent possibility. Say it ain’t so, I thought. The very notion of the idea seemed too ridiculous, fiscally irresponsible and morally corrupt to contain even the slightest modicum of truth. Subsequently, I began to research the topic, the realities of which are not strictly in keeping with current popular understanding. Like so many aspects of the clandestine world of national governance, this subject is rife with misunderstandings and grey areas that elude the layman. Today, I hope to dispel some of these myths whilst also highlighting the urgency of the cause.

Public land in the United States is composed of several designations. The ways in which these differ vary by the official bodies which govern and maintain these areas and the protections afforded them by law. National Parks lie at the zenith of protection, requiring an act of Congress and a Presidential proclamation to be awarded the title. These are outdoor recreational areas where regulations prohibit grazing, mining, forestry, hunting and other forms of exploitation. National Monuments are similar, though do not require an act of Congress. In this way, at-risk areas can be brought rapidly under the protection of the Parks Service by order of the President. Far from being a lip-service law, the establishment of National Monuments sees consistent implementation, with President Obama having created 10 such monuments during his tenure. One step down from these areas are the National Preserves, which allow controlled hunting, fishing and resource utilization in accordance with individual legislation. These three types of areas are virtually untouchable.

On the other hand, we have National Forests, National Wildlife Reguges, National Wilderness and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land. These are administered by the Forestry Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM or an amalgamation of the three. By and large, they are all subject to exploitation through mining, forestry, grazing, hunting, camping, off-road vehicle and general recreational use, the scale of which varies widely depending on unique regulations for each specific area. These are the types of lands which are currently at risk by the approval of SA838.

Map of Federal Land in the United States

The amendment, proposed by Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, garnered 51 yeas against 49 nays, pushed through by the Republican majority. This occurred despite the fact that the amendment enjoys very little support by the constituents represented by such a vote. For what reasons would the Senate vote to remove federal protection on public land in favour of State control and eventual privatisation? One can only speculate as to the internal motivations that provided the catalyst to such a proposal, though the reality of an Alaskan senator providing the genesis for such an amendment may be telling.

The sale or lease of public lands represents a demonstrable economic gain to be made from ostensibly unused land, especially in a state such as Alaska, rich in space and resources such as oil and gold. A cursory glance at the map of Federal Land in Alaska and the western half of the continental United States reveals huge swaths of land that are protected under current law. Administration of these lands is not without cost and therefore the sale of these lands to private concerns represents an immediate economic boon. This type of rationale, however, reeks of short-sightedness and unsustainability. Land is a finite resource, the sale of which is little more than a Band-Aid solution in response to current fiscal dramas. One can draw parallels from a myriad of examples, both domestic and international, in which native landholders parted with sizeable tracts of traditionally occupied land in the interest of monetary compensation. They soon learned, much to their detriment and eternal torment, that money is transient, but land is forever.

Under the current amendment, National Parks, Monuments and Preserves would retain their protected status, though the remainder of public land would be up for grabs. Whilst Alaska stands a lot to gain from the immediate sale of public lands, it remains in the shadow of many other states dominated by federal ownership. Nevada leads the charge here, with a staggering 76% of the State held by the National Forest Service and BLM. If you think that means little in terms of implications for the future use of the sun-burned Mojave, think again. One only needs to climb one of the immaculate sandstone walls in Red Rock Canyon to catch a glimpse of an open-cut mine dominating the landscape of a nearby hillside. Offering public lands to the grasp of privatisation allows for our treasured areas to be plundered and ultimately destroyed without impunity.

And here, I believe, is the smoking gun in the argument against the sale of public lands. Resource exploitation is a finite enterprise, whereas conservation of wilderness areas can be applied in order to promote, sustain and increase outdoor recreation and adventure tourism which are experiencing exponential growth. Appropriately managed, this growth will continue into the foreseeable future. Such growth is, of course, not without its problems also, but represents both the ethical and economic high ground. BLM land alone provides a significant revenue stream, not only for Federal coffers but State and Native American benefit as well, generating some $6.2 Billion annually.

Let me be clear in stating that, as yet, this amendment is not law. In order to become a reality several subsequent steps must be achieved, but SA838 forms the first of these measures and highlights a mentality subscribed to by the current majority of government representatives in which wilderness areas are accorded less import than budgetary constraints. As outdoorspeople, we have a vested interest in protecting our land, but we have stiff competition. The push toward privatisation of public land has been championed and funded in part by groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity, whose acronym and rhetoric would remain unchanged should they rename themselves Americans for Profit. Behind these organisations are such keynote players as ExxonMobil and Koch Industries (the second largest privately owned company in the USA) who stand to make astronomical gains from the freeing of public land for use in the extraction of fossil fuels. As the song goes, “This land is my land/this land is your land.” It would seem there are those among us doing their utmost to erase the latter portion of those lyrics.

Whereas these entities have great strength in the number of dollars they are able to throw at their cause, the remainder of the population must rely on strength in numbers. Collectively, concerned citizens can and should do everything in their power to influence the incoming black tide. This responsibility falls upon us all, on American and international outdoor recreationalists alike. There are several ways to make this happen. Firstly, the main balance of power lies with the American voter. It is not for me to conclude which way you should or should not vote, but I urge you to give some weight to this issue the next time you find yourself at the ballot box. A full list of the senators who voted on SA838 can be found in the link at the bottom of this article. Furthermore, as a constituent you have the right to contact your representatives in government and make it known in no uncertain terms that you oppose the sale of public lands. Again, it is not in my mandate to shanghai anyone into this type of action, however I believe it behooves us to protect what little wilderness we have left.

For those of an international persuasion, you can sign a petition collated by The Wilderness Society (again, details at the bottom of this article). It feels like a small measure, but it’s worth a go. We all stand to lose something substantial, vital and irreplaceable should this amendment make the progression to law. Additionally, there are similar land use power struggles at play in other countries, for example in my home country of Australia, which demand similar attention and action.

I hardly feel that I need to elucidate further on the importance of wilderness areas in a world where they are being diminished at an unprecedented rate. However, that I have felt the need to write this article at all attests to the fact that perception of the value of the natural world is far from a common denominator. Please take some time to make your voice heard.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
June 2015

List of Senators who voted on SA838:
http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=114&session=1&vote=00106

Keep America’s public lands in public hands – The Wildeness Society Petition:
http://wilderness.org/keep-america%E2%80%99s-public-lands-public-hands

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?