Serious Nonsense Over Public Lands

Serious Nonsense Over Public Lands

Congress has done little to help national parks once it’s created them. Yellowstone photo source via AP.


Tom Kenworthy, CAP’s western expert, in a Politico op-ed.

With summer approaching, it’s a good time to reflect on the value of our system of public lands — a heritage unmatched anywhere in the world and one that owes much of its strength to the 1906 enactment of the Antiquities Act.

Last week marked the 105th anniversary of this pioneering U.S. land conservation statute. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt marked the date with a speech Wednesday at the National Press Club urging the Obama administration to be more resolute in protecting public lands — which are again under attack.

A valuable place to start is to take a look back to before the bill passed. In 1897, more than a decade into a long campaign to make the Grand Canyon a national park, an Arizona newspaper, The Williams Sun, scorned the idea as a “fiendish and diabolical scheme” that would undermine the state’s economic future, which “depends exclusively upon the development of her mineral resources.”

Supporters of that national park proposal, the Sun declared, must have been “suckled by a cow and raised by an idiot.”

A century later, the “fiendish and diabolical scheme” generated $660 million a year in tourism spending in northern Arizona and supported about 12,000 jobs, according to a Northern Arizona University study. More recently, it took just a decade after the controversial 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah for visitors to spend $20.6 million a year in surrounding counties and keep 430 Utah residents employed, according to Utah State University.

These history lessons come to mind courtesy of Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.). He’s the latest in a long line of Western demagogues who’ve tried to make a career out of opposing greater protections for federal lands and whipping up anti-Washington fervor with nonsensical talk of federal land grabs.

Rehberg has been frothing about national monuments. His recently introduced legislation — the Montana Land Sovereignty Act — would strip the president of the longstanding authority to designate national monuments in Rehberg’s home state.

With this degree of foolishness, it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s begin with that misguided notion of “Montana’s land” and Rehberg’s call to arms for his fellow Montana residents to “reassert” their authority to “manage our lands.”

Presidential authority to unilaterally make areas of public land national monuments dates to the congressional passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906. Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt and continuing through the George W. Bush era, many presidents have used this power. Often, as Congress dithered over whether to make prized areas national parks, presidents made them monuments for protection until Congress acted. Many of those monuments have evolved into some of our most iconic — and economically valuable — national parks, including Grand Canyon, Olympic, Acadia, Zion, Arches, Bryce, Capitol Reef and Grand Teton.

Not one of these presidents used the power to unilaterally take over state or private lands. Because they can’t. The statute applies only to lands owned in common by the entire American people — federally managed lands.

Like most Western states, including my home state of Colorado, Montana has lots of federal land, millions of acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and other agencies. Those lands, and the recreational opportunities they provide, are one big reason many of us live in the West.

We may spend a lot more time than other Americans hunting, camping, hiking, snowshoeing, fishing and skiing on Western public lands — but even though they’re close to home, those vast resources aren’t ours. We have no more claim to them than residents of Washington have over the C&O Canal or the George Washington National Forest. Every square foot of federally managed land — east, west, north or south — is owned in common by all of us and held in trust for the generations to come. So the idea that Montana should have some type of special sovereignty over federal lands within its borders is ludicrous.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect members of Congress, focused on their next elections, to take the long view. But as time goes on, national monument designations often prove to be visionary and of great economic value.

Montana’s a perfect illustration of the value of protected lands. Millions of people visit the state each year, spending several billion dollars annually. They don’t come to the Big Sky to marvel at the wonders of coalbed methane development in the Powder River Basin. They come to fish the Yellowstone River, hunt mule deer and elk in the Missouri Breaks and hike the backcountry of Glacier National Park.

“Open space rarely has complainers after the passage of time,” Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams observed. “Instead, it becomes about the future. You look at the [national] parks and wilderness areas in Utah, and it really defines who we are.”

Tom Kenworthy reported on public lands and the Rocky Mountain West for both The Washington Post and USA Today. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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