Midsummer Policy Update: Defending Public Lands on Multiple Fronts

Photo by Luc Mehl

ON JULY 10 THE PUBLIC COMMENT PERIOD for Interior Secretary Zinke’s National Monument review closed. In just under two months over one million people weighed in, with the vast majority — 96%! —telling Zinke to leave our National Monuments alone. It was an unprecedented show of public lands advocacy, and we could all be forgiven for thinking our work was done for now.

Unfortunately, no such luck. Zinke followed up after this comment period with proposals to downsize Bears Ears National Monument and we expect the same for many of the other monuments. And while much of our attention has justifiably been focused on defending monuments, the Trump Administration and Congress are busy chipping away at our public lands in other, less overt, ways.

The public lands heist is a tangled web, but there are essentially four major threads: (1) new legislation, (2) changes to regulations and the agencies that enforce them, (3) reviews and rollbacks of existing protections, and (4) administrative restructuring. Together, these efforts share a common goal – to separate the public from our public lands and to allow industry, especially the energy industry, to squeeze every last penny of possible profit from our common heritage.

Legislative efforts to sell or transfer public lands are the most obvious piece of the public lands heist. However, because these efforts are so blatant, they are quickly beaten back and we’re seeing fewer and fewer attempts to float this type of legislation. Instead, Congress and state legislatures are now pushing bills to transfer management of public lands – from taking away federal agency law enforcement responsibilities to putting the states or local counties in charge of timber sales and energy development on public lands.

Congress is also busy rolling back regulatory protections put in place by a variety of previous administrations to protect our public lands, wildlife, air, water, and the public at large, so that industry can develop and profit from public resources with less cost and oversight – increasing industry profits at the direct expense of the American people.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration is implementing an ambitious agenda to “streamline and reorganize” the Executive Branch, which includes all of the public lands agencies. Important conservation and recreation programs, as well as entire agencies, are on the chopping block. And as the Trump Administration proposes deep cuts to staff and funding for public land agencies with one hand, they’re also directing the same agencies to do more to facilitate fossil fuel development with the other.

Furthermore, while the Trump Administration and Congress are making it easier for industry to exploit our public lands, it’s becoming harder for the public to access and enjoy them. The Administration is pushing the public lands agencies to focus all of their capacity toward expediting fossil fuel development. At the same time, Congress has systematically reduced funding for these agencies, with greater reductions each year. Given less staff and fewer resources, and with clear direction from above to prioritize energy development, federal agencies have little choice but to abandon recreation and conservation programs and to increase fees wherever possible to cover budget gaps.

Meanwhile, they also have to triage their resources – maintaining only the most popular trails, putting up gates when they can no longer maintain roads or motorized routes, and closing campgrounds and picnic areas as they fall into disrepair and the funds are not available to fix them. We’ve also seen more and more instances of agencies having to farm out maintenance and other services to for-profit corporate “partners” whose mission is not the protection and stewardship of our lands for the benefit of all but rather the increased profit of a few shareholders.

As public lands become more difficult to experience and enjoy – because of new or increased fees, or because the routes we depend on for access or other types of recreational infrastructure have fallen into disrepair – the public becomes increasingly disconnected from these lands. As we lose this connection we will also lose the incentive to fight to keep public lands public. And, as the agencies are starved for resources and prevented from doing their jobs, many people begin to question why the government even owns and manages so much land. It doesn’t take long to go from devaluing the civil servants who manage public lands to losing interest in maintaining public ownership of these lands at all. This is the long game that public lands heist proponents are playing. We can’t let them win.

You can speak up for public lands today by clicking here to send a letter to your elected officials in Washington D.C. Help us keep the pressure on.


Hilary Eisen

Recreation Planning and Policy Manager

P.S. Want to do more? Share this post with your ski partners and social media friends and get them to speak up too. Or get in touch and we can brainstorm other ways for you to amplify your voice.