The Unifying Power of Public Lands

Posted by Sara Porterfield on Feb 25th 2019

This week the Senate voted 92-8 to approve a comprehensive conservation bill. It may come as a surprise that either house of Congress, let alone the majority-Republican Senate, could vote in such agreement at this moment in time. What united both parties in near unanimous approval of a piece of legislation? The protection of public lands.

The bill permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a fifty-five-year-old federal program that uses fees levied on offshore oil and gas companies to fund conservation projects, that Congress allowed to expire last fall. It also designates more than one million acres of new wilderness areas in Utah, New Mexico, Oregon, and California and extends protection to more than 500 miles of rivers under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, along with a host of other conservation mandates.

National media outlets seemed surprised not only by such a strong showing of bipartisan support, but that that unity could come over the issue of public lands. But anyone who lives here in the West amidst not only stunningly beautiful landscapes but also the vast tracts of federal lands that characterize the region shouldn’t be surprised by the ability of public lands issues to be a rallying point. Public lands matter to those of us who live in the West, but these are not just local issues. They appeal to voters across the nation and transcend partisan lines in ways few other issues do today.

While in office, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke challenged the very mandate of federal land management agencies by opening up millions of acres of land to oil and gas extraction, drastically reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, proposing entrance fee hikes at national parks that would place a family vacation to Yosemite out of range for many middle-class families’ budgets, and sabotaging the Land and Water Conservation Fund. These actions angered Americans of all political affiliations across the nation who value protection of and access to public lands.

Westerners depend on public lands to hunt, fish, hike, ski, snowmobile—it’s our backyard, and one we care for deeply. Regional polls show strong support for robust conservation and public lands policies. Polls by both the State of the Rockies Project’s annual Conservation in the West poll and the Center for Western Priorities’ Winning the West campaign expose widespread, bipartisan support for issues that, on a national level, appear to be the purview of liberal voters. Residents of the West overwhelmingly support the development of sources of renewable energy, regulation of extractive industries, habitat protection for threatened and endangered species, and the outdoor recreation economy while vigorously opposing shrinking national monuments, turning over control of federal lands to the state, and limiting access to public lands. Since 2016, 2018’s State of the Rockies poll found, the percentage of Westerners who identify as a conservationist rose by 13 points, from 63 to 76 percent.

And it’s not only Westerners who use these public lands. Tourists come from across the country and around the world to recreate on the West’s public lands—and in doing so support tourism and outdoor recreation industries that drives the economy of much of the West. Earlier this year, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis released data showing that the outdoor recreation industry comprises 2 percent of the U.S. G.D.P., as compared to the oil and gas industry’s 1.4 percent. Across the West, cities and towns large and small rely on those of us—49 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Outdoor Industry Association—who hike, kayak, hunt, fish, mountain bike, and climb to sustain their economies.

Protecting our public lands and ensuring access to them should be a rallying point for Americans, and one that shouldn’t be surprising no matter where in the country you reside. Making public lands and “Western” issues part of a national conversation would help us find even greater success with conservation legislation, yes—but it would also help create platforms for bipartisan conversations to tackle other difficult issues facing our nation.

Public lands have incredible power to bring people together in pursuit of a common goal. Let’s put that power to use.