Public Land Is A Civil Right

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park
Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Congress started its 115th session this week. Much of the country was focused on the “big” issues: the battle between our president-elect and the intelligence agencies, the promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or the ongoing acts of violence in our streets and now also airports. Few of us were paying attention to the rule changing (or should I say partisan game playing) that was going on, except perhaps for the ordeal over the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

One of those rule changes will now make it easier to transfer ownership of public lands from the federal government to states. I admit to not understanding all of the subtleties of this change, but I certainly have a problem with the idea that Congress can now give away property that we (the people) own, for free — as if these lands have no value. I don’t only mean value in terms of monetary worth, although the land and resources associated with it clearly have value in an economic sense. The 2017 budget for the Department of Interior was $13.4 billion which, according to Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior “reflects the Administration’s commitment to protect important national landscapes, responsibly manage energy development on public lands and waters, and support Federal trust responsibilities to Native American Tribes and communities.”

I was thinking of value in the sense of what is important in life, important to Americans. A 2016 poll conducted by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project confirmed that citizens in the West (where the majority of public land exists) are strongly connected to national parks, national forests, and other public lands. According to David Metz, president of FM3 Research:

The overwhelming majority of Westerners view the national forests and other public lands they use as American places that are a shared inheritance and a shared responsibility. Rather than supporting land transfer proposals, voters say their top priorities are to ensure public lands are protected for future generations and that the rangers and land managers have the resources they need to do their jobs.

As I think about public lands out West, I am still trying to figure out why the Bundy brothers and co-conspirators were acquitted of all charges despite their taking over a federally owned Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Never mind that they were armed, occupied the refuge headquarters, and damaged property. Property, that apparently now has no value according to Congress. The defense argued that the invaders were only “protesting government overreach.” I won’t even get into the inconsistencies of how things were handled at the Dakota Access pipeline protests where Native Americans were concerned about the risk of environmental damage to their sacred land.

We are living in times when so many things that have previously been fought for are once again under attack: protected lands, environmental regulations, fair and equitable (and respectful) treatment of ALL people, regardless of skin color, heritage, place of birth, gender, who they love, etc., women’s reproductive rights. The list is long. By chance last night while purging some piles, I came across a 2014 blog post in which the author, Lauret Savoy, argues that “we’d all do well to [think about the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act together] if we are to understand this society — for preserving wild lands and putting an end to Jim Crow segregation have more to do with each other than meets the eye.”

As our public land, environmental quality, and civil rights come under a barrage of attacks, I think Dr. Savoy was right. Just today, I saw this headline: The Kochs Launch Campaign to Convince Black People That Dirty Fuel Is Good for Them. Really? There are so many environmental justice issues we could talk about.

It will do us well to pay attention to all the actions happening in Washington D.C. – even the seemingly mundane rules of how Congress will operate.