PUBLIC LANDS ARE UNDER THREAT IN AMERICA

by Tara Gulwell

America’s National Park Service (NPS) has been catching a lot of attention in the press recently. After tweeting out pictures from Obama’s 2008 inauguration and Trump’s, the NPS’s twitter account was instructed to temporality stop using twitter. The account for Badlands National Park defied the gag however, tweeting out facts about climate change, leading to speculation that this was an act of criticism directed at President Trump’s past comments concerning global warming. So-called “rogue” accounts from NPS employers have since sprung up on twitter, though it should be said that the identity of the account-holders are not verified.

But twitter aside, the Republicans are beginning to chip away at the legal protections afforded to the public, federal land the NPS stewards. Returning land back to the ownership of states, and the selling of swaths of land for private enterprise has been a long-standing promise of a Republican platform. But especially during the Obama years, Congressional Republicans became frenzied over states’ rights to public land.

Let’s be clear: if a piece of land is transferred from federal jurisdiction to state control it seizes to be public land. It’s no longer the property of the American public but of the sole state, in which citizens are given no rights to decision-making concerning that land. It also becomes a lot easier to sell that land off – individual states don’t always have the funds to continue stewardship, and it’s off to the highest bidder.

Some Republicans are getting bold. Some are skipping the state route altogether and straight up advocate for the sale of federal lands to corporations. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced a bill that would have sold off 3.3m acres of national land. After criticism from hunters and a huge public outcry, fortunately Chaffetz withdrew the bill. But there will be many more attempts by Republicans in congress over at least the next four years to introduce legislation that breaks down the public ownership of land. Perhaps the public outrage against Chaffetz will serve as an early example of ways to resist. In fact, national parks are well liked by the vast majority of the American public.

A June 2006 study from Harvard found that national parks are incredibly popular, with 95% of Americans saying that protecting national parks for future generations was important. So why are the stronghold of congressional Republicans so against them? Besides, it’s an invention of their own party. Well, federally protected lands are a big government roadblock to fracking and mountaintop removal.

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You can drill on certain federal lands through the loophole that the government only owns the surface land, not the resources underneath, but the Department of the Interior can legally manage private drilling, exercise caution and can reject drilling rights. It would just be a whole lot easier for that land to be privately owned, right? Or ease the restrictions on the drilling that already takes place? Well, that’s exactly the thinking of Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) (a Catholic who once boycotted an address by Pope Francis because of his comments on climate change). Gosar introduced a resolution that would have largely scaled back the regulations imposed on those looking to drill on federal lands.

Surprisingly though, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Interior seems to be a safe pick for the NPS. In his hearing, Ryan Zinke spoke out against the selling of federal lands (much to the dismay of many of his peers, I would suspect), believed in anthropogenic climate change, and nothing in his past seems to point to anything different. Instead of looking towards the administration for an attack on public lands, keep your eyes on congress. Don’t let headlines about Trump’s antics distract you from what could be a mass wipeout of millions of acres of publically-owned land. Until 2018 the American public’s critical attention and action is all they’ve got.

Featured image credit: National Park Service

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