Thursday, February 28, 2019
A paradigm shift in the politics of public lands
Congress overwhelmingly passed an omnibus bill Tuesday that strengthened America’s commitment to its public lands — hundreds of millions of acres of open space that carry labels like national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, wilderness and recreation areas.
The support this measure enjoyed among Republicans just might signal an approaching end to the party’s decades-long embrace of a campaign aimed at divesting the U.S. of ownership or control of public lands.
That campaign produced few tangible results. A proposal by the Reagan administration to sell off about 40 million acres went nowhere, and efforts by Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt to yield control of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands to mining companies and ranching enterprises were stymied by Congress or the courts. Since then, the campaign has tried to keep the idea alive by regularly inserting a plank calling for divestiture of public lands in Republican Party platforms, including in 2016.
While President Trump never embraced the idea of selling off public lands, his administration has revived the Watt approach, working to turn over control of many millions of acres to fossil fuel and other industrial interests, and to gut regulations protecting clean water and endangered species. Indeed, the administration has given industry even more than it asked for, abandoning agreements prior administrations had forged with western governors to protect imperiled species, and drastically downsizing the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, the first large protected area of public lands where Native Americans were given a meaningful management role. Any doubts about this administration’s priorities were erased when, during the recent government shutdown, it kept civil servants processing oil and gas drilling permits while park rangers were furloughed.
But the passage of this bill out of Congress, along with several other developments, suggest that the administration is fighting an uphill battle. Market forces are killing the coal industry and discouraging petroleum exploration in remote unsullied parts of the public lands. Public opinion polls, including the most recent annual Conservation in the West survey conducted by Colorado College, consistently show that most westerners, like Americans elsewhere, strongly resist divesting the U.S. of ownership or control of public lands. In the campaign leading up to the 2018 mid-terms, most Republican candidates in the west took strong pro-public lands positions.
What we are witnessing among the Republicans is not a paradigm shift, but a failure to grow a pair and do what's right for the country and the resource.