The Value of Public Lands: A Broad, Quiet Consensus

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View of the Cherokee National Forest from Stratton Bald in the Nantahala National Forest. Photo by Chance Finegan.

By Chance Finegan

Back in late March, as Boston was struggling under record snowfall, as Sacramento was praying for rain, as Nashville was reveling in spring, the Senate took up Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) suggestion (officially, SA 838) that the federal government sell all public land save the national parks and national monuments.

In and of itself, ths is nothing particular noteworthy. Republican legislators from the West have a tendency to call for the wholesale disposal of public land on a regular basis. But this time, things are perhaps a bit different. The measure passed with a whopping 51 votes. 51 votes! Easterners and westerners alike supported it.

This includes Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who represents my native state and is a former mayor of Chattanooga, a pleasant city of about 100,000 people nestled between the foothills of the Appalachians and the Tennessee River. During Mayor Corker’s tenure, the city exploded onto the southern tourism scene. Everyone wanted to be in Chattanooga – for the music, for the food, for the museums, and (perhaps most of all) for the outdoor recreation to be had in the adjacent Cherokee National Forest. In the summer of 1996, the Cherokee briefly dazzled the world as it hosted the whitewater events for the Atlanta Olympics.

Ironic, then, that Sen. Corker would see this land sold off to the highest bidder. Maybe he has forgotten how his city has prospered thanks in no small part to the massive national forest in his backyard. Or maybe he just wanted to be on record as yet again opposing the presumably big, bad, bumbling government.

I would argue, though, that Sen. Corker’s vote is indicative of a larger problem – the idea that public land belongs only to its nearby residents and that they are best-suited to manage it is forged in a crucible created by small minority with a loud voice. A voice that has drowned out the voices of those who value public land.

Consider the following:

Colorado College’s annual State of the Rockies Project consists, in part, of surveys that “explore opinions in each state and for the six-state region [Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming] concerning conservation, environment, energy, the role of government, trade-offs with economies, and citizen priorities.” The 2015 survey found, among other things, that:

  • Nearly 70% of Western voters view public lands as ‘American’ and belonging to everyone rather than only to local residents.
  • A majority of voters in every state in the survey believe this, as does a majority of self-identified Tea Party members.
  • Over double the number of people believe the top priority for public lands is ‘protecting and conserving natural areas for future generations’ than the number of people who believe it is ‘making sure resources…are available for development’ (82% vs 40%)

When considering Millennials in the West (age 18-32; America’s largest living generation) only, the results become even more lop-sided:

  • 85% of Millennials support the use of the Antiquities Act.
  • 79% of Millennials ‘worry about children growing up today not spending enough time outside.’
  • 75% of Millennials believe the federal government needs to continue to protect public lands from development.
  • 60% of Millennials oppose the sale of public lands to reduce the federal deficit.

That public lands continue to enjoy broad support from across the political spectrum is clear. What is less clear, however, is if the 51 senators who voted to sell off all public land save the parks and monuments are listening to or can even hear the voices of those who believe in the value of public land. The perpetual calls for devolvement of public land to the states and private citizens are loud. Will 70% of all Western voters be heard above those calls? 85% of Millennials in the West?

Chance N. Finegan holds a Bachelor of Science in natural resources management from the University of Tennessee and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Northern Iowa.  He has served federal and state conservation agencies and non-profit organizations in a variety of capacities.  Chance holds professional certification as an interpretive guide through the National Association for Interpretation.  Chance will begin his studies as a doctoral student in environmental studies at York University in September, where he will examine the relationship between indigenous people and national park managers.

This entry is cross-posted at https://chanceblogs.wordpress.com/

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