The call to turn over public lands to state or local control isn’t just for gun-toting crackpots like the militia men who occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year in Eastern Oregon.
Picking through the boneyard of dead bills in this year’s Legislature, we uncovered a disturbing artifact: House Bill 1103. Five Republicans from east of the Cascades signed their names to this attempt to transfer federal lands to the state.
Thankfully the bill fizzled in committee. But it serves as a reminder that there are leaders in our state willing to jeopardize the future of public lands under the specious claim that natural resource conservation is best handled locally.
Drafters of the bill will tell you public lands are in serious jeopardy. They’ll use the word “mismanagement.” They’ll cite threats of beetles, invasive species, watershed degradation access restrictions and catastrophic wildfires. And though their concerns have some validity, they might also be a smokescreen for a land grab.
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In a resource-rich state like ours, developers and extractive industries would love to see the feds move out of the way. The federal government today owns more than 27 percent of the Evergreen State.
The crusade to repossess land from Uncle Sam gained traction after President Barack Obama claimed more than 1.5 million acres in Nevada and Utah before he left office, citing the 1909 Antiquities Act. In his two terms, Obama turned 554 million acres into federal property, the most of any president.
But preserving public lands ensures they won’t be exploited for profit; it also guarantees the perpetuation of Washington traditions like hunting and fishing.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent of sportsmen depend on access to public lands for hunting. None would be happy driving up to their favorite spots to find a locked gate and a “Keep Out” sign.
The growing movement to liquidate federal lands has triggered a rare alliance among Northwest hunters, anglers and environmentalists. These groups may don different garb, like NRA hats and “save the bees” T-shirts, but their agendas intersect: Fight to keep wild and natural places wild and natural.
“As hunters and fishermen and hikers and mushroom pickers, we’re a force to be reckoned with, all together,” Oregon hunter Matt Dickason, who belongs to several sportsmen groups, recently told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
It makes good economic sense, too. As nice as our museums and man-made attractions are, thousands of out-of-state visitors come for one reason: the majestic nature in our backyard.
Last year Washington raked in more than $21 billion from outdoor recreation; that economic sector supports 200,000 jobs, 62 percent of which are on public lands. Those numbers rank right up there with the state’s tech industry (191,000 jobs) and aerospace (94,200 jobs).
The next time a Washington lawmaker is tempted to bring up another bill like HB1103, he should take a good look at Wasatch Mountain country. In 2012, when Utah passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act demanding the feds turn over some 31 million acres, it cost state and local governments about $280 million a year, according to three public university studies.
President Donald Trump has talked a good game about keeping public lands in public hands. During his campaign, he told Field & Stream magazine he was against any sale or transfer: “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great.”
Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell is dubious. The Democrat opposed Ryan Zinke, Trump’s pick for secretary of interior, over this very issue, saying government must “manage our public lands for the benefit of all Americans — not just the oil gas and mining companies and their commercial interests.”
There’s no doubt federal management of public lands has at times frustrated citizens, businesses and communities, and that regulations have hindered some access to recreation and development. But there’s also no public will to give up on Teddy Roosevelt’s century-old vision of federal land preservation.
Here’s hoping the five state representatives who proposed HB1103 got that message.