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Tawney: Public lands unite us as Americans

Tawney: Public lands unite us as Americans

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This is the best time of the year.

For some of us, it’s hunting season, the best time to be out chasing critters to feed our families and creating memories with meaning. Or maybe it’s the best time for afternoon bike rides or the best time to be watching the spectacle that is waterfowl migration.

Hundreds of us channeled that urge to action last weekend on the banks of the North Platte River at a site named for legendary conservationist Izaak Walton. Hunters, anglers, horsemen, birders and kayakers all under one tent. Together we stood united in the name of America’s public lands – and together we opposed efforts to divest citizens of these places and the outdoor traditions they represent.

We own deed to over 640 million acres of public lands. Nothing is more American than places that provide clean air, clean water, world-class fish and wildlife habitat and opportunities for solace in an ever-changing world. The fact that these places are valuable is beyond dispute. The $646 billion economy generated annually by outdoor recreation relies largely on public lands – and is sustainable as long as we keep public lands in public hands.

Yet a movement is afoot to divest us of this precious legacy – to steal from us the riches that visionaries like Walton helped conserve. Today, the privatization movement is well funded and organized. Its proponents are in it for the long haul. Their aim is to take from us our lands and waters – and by extension our economic security and our outdoor heritage.

Together, we can stop this thievery.

Standing together, we possess a collective strength that is insurmountable. Together, Wyomingites beat back ill-advised legislation calling for the transfer of public lands to state ownership. A study bill weighed the feasibility of state transfer, and, like studies before it, confirmed what a stupid idea this is. Simply put, states can’t afford to shoulder the costs of managing these lands. If public lands came under state ownership, states ultimately would be forced to sell them.

State lands management encompasses a host of other problems. States often don’t manage lands for fish and wildlife values or public access; in most cases, their priority is turning a profit. Consider the recently proposed Bonander land trade to understand the implications – including public access eliminated to 4,000 acres – of state management of public lands. Strong public opposition resulted in the state of Wyoming postponing its decision regarding the deal. A happy ending remains a possibility. Without advocacy by sportsmen and other advocates, this never would have happened.

Together, we are making a difference.

A Wyoming legislative committee held a hearing on Wednesday on a constitutional amendment “guaranteeing” no net loss of public lands or access should these lands be transferred to state ownership. This measure is troubling by any stretch of the imagination. Not only does it fail to acknowledge the state’s dismal track record of retaining the state lands it already owns, it also includes far too much latitude for these lands’ disposal in the future. It leaves open the possibility of state ownership of resources that currently are publicly owned. If the state enters tough financial times, what’s to say the Constitution couldn’t be amended? Don’t be fooled. Unfortunately, the committee didn’t heed those gathered in Casper or the overwhelming pushback at the hearing.

The time has come for us to fight for our outdoors legacy – not only so that future generations can enjoy the same opportunities we have today but also so that they will have something to stand up for themselves.

Saturday’s rally occurred not only during the throes of election season but just days after a federal jury in Oregon acquitted radical anti-public lands activists who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The unfortunate verdict shows that much remains to be done to inform and engage Americans on behalf of our public lands. Rising above the chatter from lawyers, politicians and fat cats, however, is the voice of public lands users.

We are the constituency that has the most to lose, should we lose our public lands, and we have spoken up in support of them again and again. We haven’t seen the last of the Bundys – or their cohorts in state legislatures and Congress. But we’re in this fight for the long haul. And damned if we’ll back down any time soon.

Together, our voices cannot be denied.

Land Tawney is president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.


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