It’s so much better to tackle thorny issues with humor than with outrage, but there’s nothing funny when the new acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversees about 240 million acres of land that belong to all Americans, wants to give them to states to be sold off. In 2016, William Perry Pendley wrote an opinion for the National Review called “The Federal Government Should Follow the Constitution and Sell Its Western Lands.” On Monday, the Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, gave Pendley the job of running the BLM. Bernhardt, it should be remembered, was an energy industry consultant before being tapped by Donald Trump to head the agency, and he has so many conflicts of interest that he had to carry a card with him to keep them straight and is currently under investigation.
Here’s where my friend Brendan Leonard would find something funny to say that would temper frustration, but me, I just see red. It seems self-obvious to me that American lands belong to all Americans and that conservation—conserving things for the future—is a responsibility we owe our children and a good idea, besides. But that’s just me.
Pendley makes the following arguments:
The “public” should not be allowed in land-use decision-making (quotes his).
Um, hello? “Democracy.” See First Amendment. See Congressional representation. See the right to public input codified at every level of government.
Environmental organizations aren’t affected by government decisions and therefore shouldn’t have say.
So, you don’t have standing unless you’re directly affected? First, it’s spurious to assume no impact. If I’m a member of the Sierra Club and my favorite place to play is Bryce Canyon and the federal approval of a coal mine there impacts my ability to star gaze, I’m affected. Lack of proximity does not mean lack of stake. Second, see point one: All Americans are in some way potentially affected by the decision and policies of the government. Pendley clearly wants less public oversight or objection to the land transfer that will enrich already rich corporations.
The writers of the Constitution intended to sell/give all federal land.
Not a constitutional scholar and don’t know that I ever will be, so I can’t address whether that’s true or not. But I have a brain and I’m not stupid and I know that the founder fathers would have expected subsequent generations to adapt laws and policies to the changing times. America is radically different than it was 200-plus years ago—it was mostly agrarian and the frontier was in Illinois. We were land-rich and without tools to transfer a landscape overnight. Today, we are 300 million, with environmental constraints left and right, and our last, most-precious assets are our unsullied lands.
States and local authorities should have the right to make land decisions and are best qualified to manage them.
Cough. Cough cough cough. Sorry, I was choking on my chimichanga. Say what? Let’s just look at state school trust lands. 134 million acres were granted to states when they entered the union to assist with the funding of schools. Most of those lands have been sold off, which, as the Salt Lake Tribune reported, is “choking off revenue streams that could be supporting public education.” (Link, Link)
States have consistently favored industry and private ownership over conservation, and that’s the clear impetus behind the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion. It’s not enough that the western ranching community is heavily subsidized by leasing rates on public lands far below market value—these welfare ranchers and their allies don’t want federal lands because they think they’ll be better stewards, but because they think they’ll make more money.
Even if states at least nominally say they’ll keep the lands open, they can’t afford to do so. In Utah, a state whose Mormon leadership has been antagonistic to the U.S. government forever, economists at the University of Utah found that it would cost the state far more to manage the lands than the feds. Yes, they’d make money selling off to industry, but overall costs would be higher.
Federal land conservation rules are too restrictive and hurt local economies.
Patently false. Let’s look at the impact of the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. A study by Headwaters Economics found that between 2001 and 2015, the region’s population grew by 13 percent, jobs grew by 24 percent, real per capita income grew by 17 percent, and real personal income grew by 32 percent. Study after study has shown that elevated conservation elevates economic conditions in the communities adjacent to public lands. National parks offer one of the best returns on investment imaginable: For every dollar spent on parks, ten dollars of economic growth are created.
Well, waah. It’s a democracy. We aren’t all going to get what we want (and right now I’m not getting what I want 😂). The fairness is in the system—that you have the ability and the right to share your perspective, that you have a vote to make sure your positions are represented in Congress, and that you can take action through NGOs and other methods. What’s not fair is people gaming the system to reduce public input and franchise, as the Trump Administration has done again and again.
American individualism can be wonderful, except when the selfishness and greed of people in power to enrich the already rich destroys, pollutes, sells off, or otherwise ruins the public commons. We have tremendous freedom as Americans, but we also have a responsibility to make wise choices and to think about others as we make them—others alive now and others not yet born. These are not easy issues to solve, or even parse. Local resistance to federal ownership is as much cultural as it is financial—maybe more so. But every American should be disturbed, outraged, and motivated to act against the weasels that would steal from us all to make a few other weasels fatter. Fifteen months to the next election, baby.
For further reading, take a look at this report from Vice.