When Montana Gov. Steve Bullock stood before hundreds of camo-clad activists who descended on the Montana capitol in Helena last week and said, “I don’t want Montana to be recognized for a half-baked scheme that would endanger our public lands and our economy,” the applause was thunderous.
But the “scheme” is pervasive.
Montana is but one of a half-dozen or so states entertaining legislative proposals, bills or studies that, should they succeed, could transfer ownership of federal public lands to the states for management. In Utah, the state Legislature has gone from entertaining the idea to actually passing a bill in 2012 to seize those lands, and to act on the new law by spending $2 million annually in taxpayer money to educate and litigate. Utah’s law likely won’t pass a constitutional litmus test, and the so-called “deadline” for the transfer to take place came and went on Dec. 31, 2014, without a single acre changing hands. But Utah’s law appears to have emboldened uber-conservative lawmakers in states like Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Washington, as they to try to achieve similar outcomes.
To their credit, sportsmen are pushing back, hosting vocal rallies in New Mexico, Idaho, Montana and Colorado. But are they too late to the game? And is the influence of the traditionally conservative voting bloc of hunters and anglers enough to sway the far right and convince lawmakers that a saccharine, manufactured Sagebrush Rebellion is fruitless from both a legal perspective and a cultural one?
And how about economically? Lots of numbers have been floated by both sides of this issue -- carefully customized and crafted “fuzzy math” that might have undue influence on the future of public lands seems to appear out of nowhere at opportune times. Wouldn’t it be great to believe that this effort to transfer public lands from the feds to the states is some altruistic grassroots idea meant to manage those lands in a way that works for everyone?
Sadly, that’s just not the case. This isn’t a true “Sagebrush Rebellion.” It’s a corporate bait-and-switch scheme meant to open America’s natural resources to immediate extraction. The cash funding these efforts is as dark as Sauron and the lawmakers pushing these ideas are either blinded by dogma or they’ve received some support and, quite possibly, some political funding that comes burdened with expectations.
First, the idea. While Utah’s state Rep. Ken Ivory (R), is often given the credit for conceiving and crafting the Utah law, it very likely earned its beginnings in the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative, D.C.-based think tank that purports to help state lawmakers craft effective legislation. While that sounds fine and good, it’s important to note that ALEC’s “private enterprise board” is populated by some of the country’s largest corporations, many of which stand to gain mightily by states taking over management of federal public lands and loosening regulations and permitting required for development. The Center for Media and Democracy calls ALEC a “corporate bill mill”. In 2012, ALEC drafted sample legislation for hopeful introduction at the Congressional level that would transfer ownership of federal lands to the state for “disposal and taxation.”
The private enterprise board’s members are a veritable “who’s who” in the D.C. lobby world -- it contains companies ranging from the Altria Group (tobacco) to Bayer and Pfizer to Exxon-Mobile and Peabody Energy to Koch Industries, the oft-maligned industrial giant with fingers in numerous sectors, from chemicals to fertilizer to mining to cattle … to oil and gas.
And, just to connect the dots, here’s how Rep. Ivory in Utah explain how his state could afford to manage all 31 million acres of federal public land once he succeeded in seizing it from the roughly 300 million Americans who own it: according to an 800-page, $500,000 taxpayer-funded report released by the state last year, the sale of oil and gas leases would raise enough money to cover the estimated $280 million needed to manage Utah’s newly begotten real estate. Every year. In perpetuity.
Coincidence? Sadly, probably not. A quick look at Ivory’s own campaign finance report shows that he’s a lawmaker who can be bought -- his donor list is peppered with big-money donations (for a state lawmaker) from the oil and gas industry, the mining industry, the agricultural industry and just about every other conceivable extractive industrial lobby that might need a favor in the Utah Statehouse. No wonder he’s the ALEC 2014 Legislator of the Year. He’s a favor waiting to be asked.
The law was ginned up within the ranks of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which leans heavily on extractive industry to help shape policy. It was first carried out by Ivory in Utah, who, in the last three election cycles has raised more than $20,000 from extractive industries and industries that would benefit from a more lenient management philosophy on public lands in Utah. That may not seem like a tremendous amount of money, but keep in mind that this is a state legislative office in very rural Utah. In other words, it’s a political war chest. And a bargain investment for industry, if, somehow, Utah’s law does pass muster.
After the success in Utah, ALEC and the Koch-backed, Kansas-based Americans for Prosperity are busy working their dark magic in other state legislatures. In Montana, they have been joined by Richard Berman’s spin-off group, the so-called Environmental Policy Alliance that’s spent the better part of a year trying to trash the reputations of sportsmen who have championed conservation causes. And now this triumvirate of secretly funded influence-peddlers has found a Montana lawmaker willing to carry their water -- one Jennifer Fielder (R), from Thompson Falls.
Fielder has put forth a number of bills in the Montana Legislature this winter meant to chip away at federal ownership of public lands in her state, and sportsmen called her out recently, even going to so far to connect the dots between Fielder’s efforts to transfer public lands to the state and the “wingnut Utah ideas” (from a protest sign) that Fielder is bringing to Montana. Randy Newburg, who hosts the popular TV show, “Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg,” even offered to pay bus fare for the out-of-staters trying to “see who’s for sale” in Montana.
And, it appears, Fielder is the legislator who’s for sale. Her campaign finance report looks like Billboard’s Top 40 of extractive industries. It’s top-heavy with oil and gas and anti-labor, and prominently features timber and big agriculture. And she’s carrying the water in the Montana Statehouse for the groups Newberg would like to see stuffed on a bus and sent home to Kansas or Washington or Utah.
The same could be said for Idaho’s state Sen. Chuck Winder, whose campaign finance report closely mirrors those of Fielder and Ivory. Winder spearheaded a legislative committee to “study” the issue of a public lands transfer in 2014, that included public hearings all across Idaho. Time and time again, according to news reports, Idahoans came out in droves opposing the idea, yet the final report produced by the committee would have you believe that the whole state is on board and ready to turn federal public lands into state lands. And Winder, whose committee has already spent $100,000 on the public hearings, wants to perpetually fund the effort to the tune of $250,000 a year in taxpayer money. Apparently, it’s not wasteful when the money is spent on pet projects, even if the those projects are, at best, unconstitutional and, at worst, a bit treasonous.
And there are bought-and-paid-for lawmakers -- mostly from rural areas where the notion of federal overreach touches raw nerves so insidiously that folks willingly turn on their government -- in just about every Western state. But most of the citizens of those states don’t share these extreme views, according to a study released recently by Colorado College. In fact, the study reveals, the voters in the West who are most connected to public lands are hunters and anglers -- nearly 80 percent of sportsmen in the West say access to public lands is vital to their pastimes, as opposed to 67 percent of those who do not identify themselves as anglers or hunters (67 percent is still an astounding number).
And that strikes at the core of the issue: privatization of public lands.
In Idaho, for instance, a University of Idaho study found that the state, should it somehow find a way to coopt public lands, could find itself over $110 million in debt every single year it was saddled with the costs of managing those public lands, even it managed these new lands for maximum economic yield by selling timber and grazing leases like it does on existing state land. In Utah, the oil and gas leasing idea would, of course, depend on fickle market commodities that, presently, are trading at the lowest prices in a decade. Assuming legislators pushing similar efforts in Montana, Colorado, Washington and New Mexico all subscribe to the same “on the come” management philosophy, there’s a better than average chance that all states burdened with new public land management expenses will be forced to do exactly what sportsmen around the West fear most: liquidate.
“Can you imagine who would line up and bid the highest to get their hands on our land?” asked Greg McReynolds, an Idaho coordinator with Trout Unlimited, at the Idaho public lands rally in Boise on Feb. 12. “It wouldn’t be you and me. It would be industry, and those industries would have plans for our land that would eliminate our fishing and hunting.”
That is the biggest fear. That’s the bogeyman for sportsmen, who have seen past the “We can do a better job managing public lands than the feds” argument, and see instead a landscape pocked by clearcuts, natural gas well pads, and hard-rock mines. They see Jeep trails paved over for well tenders and and open pits surrounded by yellow, toxic tailings.
“The threat to our public lands is about more than the constitutional and fiscal realities of rational thought,” McReynolds wrote in a column published in the Idaho State Journal. “For many of us, the loss of our public lands would be akin to a prison sentence. Public lands are where we hunt, fish, hike, bike and ride, and if I have anything to say about it, it’s where my children and theirs will enjoy their time outdoors.”
While the immeasurable -- and some would say emotional -- benefits public lands offer to the populace are particularly salient within the sporting community, the best argument for leaving “public lands in public hands” is purely economical and sadly overlooked.
Montana’s Bullock lightly touched on the topic in his speech in Helena last week when he talked of how Montana’s public lands were a significant tourism draw. “They don’t come here for our WalMarts,” he said. “They can do that at home.”
Instead, he said, they come to Montana to experience the “best vacation of their lives,” and that means they come to fish, hunt, ride, camp and simply experience the wild country that still exists thanks to the likes of Roosevelt, Muir and Pinchot who set these lands aside a century ago.
But, he didn’t give numbers. And the numbers are vital, even if they’re not the numbers the purchased politicians want to read.
Just how much is outdoor recreation in Montana worth? According to the Outdoor Industry Association, it’s worth $5.8 billion every year, and it supports 64,000 jobs that pay wages totaling $1.5 billion and contribute more than $403 million every year in state and local tax revenue.
And that doesn’t include fishing and hunting. Fishing alone, according to the American Sportfishing Association’s 2011 Sportfishing in America report, contributes nearly $500 million annually to Montana’s economy, supports more than 5,000 jobs and pays nearly $150 million in wages while contributing $37 million in state and local sales tax revenue.
Hunters contributed even more in 2011, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spending nearly $630 million annually in pursuit of game in Montana. And, state by state, those numbers are consistent throughout the West. Risking the health--or the ownership--of public lands risks an in-place economy that is already competitive with (and in some cases, exceeds) industrial land use in each of the states being targeted for a land transfer.
This is hard data, as opposed to the hopeful, betting-on-the come figures that Ivory and his cohorts in Montana and Idaho are apparently counting on to accomplish their very own land grab. And these number are sustainable. Even renewable. But they all depend on one constant. Public lands need to stay in public hands, and they need to remain accessible to all, not just the energy companies or the timber companies or the mining companies these lawmakers assume will help pay the bills.
What’s more, keeping these lands public is the will of the people. And the people are willing to work around obstructionist lawmakers to keep public land in the hands of all Americans. In Colorado, for instance, local citizens in the Arkansas River valley have worked for years to seek a legislative solution to the permanent protection of Browns Canyon, a stretch of wild country and wild water between the communities of Buena Vista and Salida. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get any traction in Congress, despite help from some members of the state’s federal delegation.
They finally gave up, and went straight to the president for help, in part because lawmakers like U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), refused to budge from the dogmatic ideals they’ve been funded to promote. When President Obama declared Browns Canyon a national monument recently, Lamborn exploded in the press, telling Obama to “cut it out.”
“He is not king,” Lamborn whined. “No more acting like King Barack.”
Lamborn, it should be noted, is on the take from the oil and gas industry, which is his biggest campaign funder ($122,000 in campaign donation receipts as a candidate), and he has longtime ties to ALEC, which, as noted above, has been very active in the effort to transfer public lands to the states and eventually dispose of them altogether. To further emphasize Lamborn’s allegiance, he’s also the beneficiary of a $10,000 gift from Koch Industries.
So, who’s the real “king” here? Obama, who just protected 21,000 acres of publicly accessible land for all Americans, or Lamborn, who supports the notion of transferring public lands to the states where they could very likely end up being privatized for the benefit of a few corporate oligarchs? If and when that happens, and the “no trespassing” signs go up, how will everyday Americans gain access to their favorite places to fish and hunt? Or will they even get to pursue the “king’s deer?”
As Kirk Deeter, the editor of Trout Magazine and a longtime fishing and hunting writer for Field & Stream, put it at Colorado’s public lands rally this week in Denver, the effort to transfer public land to the states and remove them from national ownership is “un-American.”
This effort to transfer public lands from the feds to the states is no grassroots uprising… no Sagebrush Rebellion. It’s a carefully manufactured corporate insurgency that could have a devastating impact on the one birthright every American enjoys -- free and clear access to public lands, where we can fish, hunt, target shoot, ride an ATV, climb a mountain, camp or just spend time with our families.
We’ve taken it for granted for too long, but hopefully not long enough to let a gang of wolves in sheep’s clothing seize it from us.