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Inside the GOP's unpopular plan to sell off public wilderness

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The vast majority of Americans love their public lands and national parks

Bureau of Land Management / Flickr

Republicans in Congress are quietly carrying out a plan that’s long been part of the GOP platform: giving away public lands to the states. But when lands Americans use to hunt, fish, and camp are transferred to states, these public areas are often developed or sold — because states either don’t have the resources to manage it, or are trying to make the most money off of it. This Republican plan threatens to cut off access to wilderness Americans cherish.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed a measure that will make it easier to transfer millions of acres of federal lands to states. In a House rules package, lawmakers basically said that federal lands are worthless and, therefore, transfers to states don’t have to take into consideration the billions of dollars in revenue the lands bring to the federal government. Last week, Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) also introduced a bill that would sell over 3 million acres of public lands across 10 states in the Western US, where most public land is concentrated.

But the public backlash was fierce. Yesterday, after an outcry from conservation and sportsmen’s groups, Chaffetz announced on Instagram that he would pull the legislation. In fact, the idea of transferring public lands to the states is widely unpopular. Recent polls show that the vast majority of Americans — across the political spectrum — oppose selling off or privatizing public lands. And 95 percent of Americans thinks protecting national parks is important; 80 percent would even be willing to pay higher taxes to ensure preservation. In 2012, Arizona voters rejected a ballot measure that would have put federal lands and forests in the state’s hands.

“This is a part of a broader war on America’s favorite wild places, where we hunt, fish, camp and enjoy numerous other activities,” Brad Brooks of the Wilderness Society wrote in an email to The Verge. “This issue strikes a visceral chord for those of us whose daily lives are intertwined with public lands, and if you take away our public lands you are forever changing our way of life.”

On this issue, President Donald Trump has been at odds with the GOP. In an interview with the magazine Field & Stream, Trump said he opposes transferring federal land to the states. “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great,” he said. During the same interview, Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. said he’s in favor of “refunding” public lands, “making sure those lands are maintained properly; making sure they’re not going into private hands to be effectively walled off to the general public.”

Trump’s pick for the secretary of interior, the federal department that oversees public lands and national parks, has also voiced similar opinions. “I am an unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, and believe he had a right when he placed under federal protection millions of our acres of federal lands, and set aside much of it as our national forest,” Ryan Zinke said at his confirmation hearing last month. “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public lands. I can’t be more clear.”

Based on those comments, Zinke “could have just as well been appointed by Obama as by Trump,” says Robert Nelson, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. “A lot of conservative Republicans, I think, were somewhat surprised. They are reluctant to criticize Trump right now or even Zinke, but I don’t think they were too happy.”

But transferring lands to the states could be a disaster on multiple levels, experts and environmental groups say. First of all, while federal land is owned by all American citizens, state land isn't — it's property solely of the state, Brooks says. “The public has no rights in the decision-making process, you have no voice in deciding whether those lands get sold, you don’t have a voice or a right to demand access for recreation,” he says. “It’s a completely different model.”

Many states, especially in the Western US, where most public land is concentrated, also manage their lands in a way that brings in the most money. That revenue is needed to fund public schools, for example, or so-called land-grant universities. Sometimes, states make the most money by logging timber, or leasing lands to oil and gas companies. But other times, when the land is too expensive to manage, it’s sold. “They look at land and think, we can make more money by selling it than managing it, so they sell it,” says John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University.

Idaho, for example, makes money by harvesting timber on state land, Freemuth says. But Idaho has also sold 41 percent of its land — 1.7 million acres — to timber companies, cattle ranchers, private clubs, and homeowners since it became a state in 1890. Since the year 2000, the state has sold over 100,000 acres of land, according to a 2016 report by the Wilderness Society. The same has happened in New Mexico, and serves as a cautionary tale of what could happen if more public land is transferred to the states, Brooks says. “States sell land all the time, and that’s the biggest threat if states were to get a hold of public land,” he says. “It’s not just a matter of saying, they might. We know what they’ve done, we have the proof, we have the evidence.”

Selling off public lands can also hurt national parks and monuments. Protected places like the Grand Canyon and the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, for example, have “buffer zones” of federal lands and forests around them. “It’s a like a hole in the doughnut, and then the rest of the doughnut, the rest of the land, effectively functions as a buffer against private development,” says Dwight Pitcaithley, a professor at New Mexico State University and a former chief historian to the National Park Service (NPS). These buffer zones are key for protecting the water and air around parks, they’re key for wildlife migration, and sometimes function as birds’ sanctuaries. “Wildlife don’t know the park’s boundaries,” says Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association.

It’s unclear whether the Trump administration will speak out strongly against the transfer of public lands to the states. He’s flip-flopped on many issues already, and we don’t know yet who will be appointed to head key agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, and the NPS. One thing is clear: when Ronald Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt tried to bring forward the administration’s anti-environmental agenda, the public spoke out. Watt also talked about selling off public lands, but that never happened, says William Rogers, the president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land. “When it came down to it, the American public pushed back,” says Rogers.

If Congress goes ahead with its plan to transfer valuable federal lands to the states, Americans won’t stay silent. “Public lands are incredibly important to Americans across this country,” Brooks says. “Any attempt to try and sell off our public lands is going to be met with stiff opposition from a lot of different groups and organizations.”