At a recent Senate hearing, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke whether Teddy Roosevelt, whom Zinke claims as his mentor, would support the elimination of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a 50-year-old account used to support the protection of land and water across the country. Zinke answered, “I challenge you to give me one square inch of land that has been removed from federal protection.”
This incongruous response from Secretary Zinke, likely intended to appease public-lands advocates, failed to acknowledge the more complicated reality that the pro-public-lands movement is facing today. When the Interior Department excised millions of acres from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah last year, that land remained under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. Now, however, it receives much less protection from activities like hardrock mining and oil and gas drilling.
So protest signs with slogans like “Public lands in public hands” and “Keep it public” can miss the point of what the Interior Department has been doing over the past year. It is true that maintaining access to public lands has united a broad range of sportsmen and environmentalists. Because these lands are used for both conservation and recreation in the West, the movement has gained new support. That even includes politicians known for their anti-environmental bent, such as former Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who used the hashtag #keepitpublic when he announced the withdrawal of a bill to dispose of 3 million acres of public lands.
But the conservation target has moved. Although the motivation of privatizers is partially based on a states’ rights ideology that resents the federal government on principle, the movement’s more practical side seeks to skirt environmental reviews. On state or private lands, for example, activities like oil and gas exploration, logging, and grazing often don’t require compliance with laws like the National Environmental Policy, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts.
So, with the pro-public-lands movement effectively rallying supporters, those who wish to transfer public land to the states have shifted tactics and begun to employ a much more insidious strategy. Instead of pushing for the outright disposal of these lands, transfer advocates like Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop are attempting to undermine the landmark laws that provide oversight of extractive industries — especially oil and gas — on public lands.
In late 2016, Bishop declared, “I would be happy to invalidate the Endangered Species Act.” In 2017, other politicians publicly agreed with him, and there were more than 70 legislative attacks on the law, which Congress overwhelmingly approved in 1973.
Meanwhile, land-transfer advocates, with support from President Donald Trump and officials like Secretary Zinke, have pursued their end goal of opening up protected public lands while still maintaining federal management.
On the territory lopped off from the two reduced monuments in Utah, drilling for oil and gas and mining for minerals such as uranium will now be allowed in places where such extractive industries were previously banned. Other activities, like motorized recreation, can be allowed in monuments but face far less scrutiny in non-protected BLM and Forest Service tracts. National monuments also typically draw more funding for staff and protection of archaeological treasures like Cedar Mesa, which was left out of Trump’s revised monument.
What’s more, last September, Secretary Zinke allowed a two-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing in prime sage grouse habitat to expire. Though the land will remain under the management of the BLM, its ability to support imperiled species will undoubtedly decline as new extractive leases are developed.
Congress has also opened the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. While it is true that the land will remain in “public hands,” the change is disastrous ecologically. The area, which supports 200 species of migratory birds, all three species of North American bears, and one of the last great caribou herds, stands to be devastated.
The fight for public lands can’t merely be about keeping them public. Public lands need vigilant protection to ensure that they support healthy forests, clean water and robust wildlife populations. With public lands advocates slowly embracing this more complex mission, the real fight can begin.
Michael Dax lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he is a national outreach representative for Defenders of Wildlife. This story was produced and published by High Country News. Photo by US Fish & Wildlife