Editorial: Public lands should stay that way

  • In this Aug. 26, 2016, file photo, a herd of bison appears in Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley in Montana. AP

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

President Donald Trump appears to support a plan to steal some of the land from all of the people and give it to a relative few.

Last week, Trump ordered the Department of the Interior to report on every monument over 100,000 acres created by presidential declaration since 1996. He did so with an eye to shrinking them or undoing them.

Trump called the monuments “a massive federal land grab” and said “it’s time to end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of Utah, the people of all the states, the people of the United States.”

We don’t quite know what the president was talking about. The land involved is all federally owned – that is, owned by the people of the United States. The federal government didn’t grab any land, it already owned it.

National monuments, under the 1906 Antiquities Act signed by Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, can be created only on federal land by order of a president. The president can’t designate Hampton Beach State Park a national monument or, for that matter, somebody’s backyard.

The thinly populated Western states are home to the vast majority of federal lands: 85 percent of Nevada is federally owned, 65 percent of Utah, 62 percent of Idaho, 61 percent of Alaska, 48 percent of Wyoming and so on.

Republican members of Congress in those states had long sought the transfer of some or all of that land to the states. Mining, oil and other extractive industries support the transfer, as well as ranchers and other agricultural interests.

“Any national monument created through the use of the Antiquities Act is a travesty and an affront to the democratic process,” said the Capital Press, which calls itself the “West’s Ag Website,” in response to a proposal to create a new national monument in Oregon.

The ceding of federal lands to states is opposed by those who want to protect the nation’s historic, scenic and environmental resources, by residents of those states who know that federal lands and the visitors they draw do more for the economy than the sale or lease of those lands to private developers.

Field and Stream magazine, founded in 1895, typically tells sporting men and women how to catch bass, avoid the grizzlies that aren’t busy terrorizing schools and bag a big buck. The current issue, however, carries an editorial and six pages of photos, articles and infographics that support keeping public lands public.

The track record of states in protecting their own lands or lands transferred to them by the federal government to finance schools and other essential institutions hasn’t been good. The magazine pointed to Utah, whose congressional delegation supports ceding land to the states. That state’s land trust sold 3,700 acres of public land, including a scenic parcel adjoining Zion National Park. The state made $5.5 million on the deal but the public, and local residents, lost. Not all states have to manage public lands for public use, so when they choose – or lease the land to interests that want to close it to the public – property can be gated, public recreation terminated or use fees charged.

Many of America’s priceless natural treasures, including Grand Canyon and Grand Teton National Parks, began life as national monuments. They and the rest of federally owned public lands should be held in trust in perpetuity for future generations and the good of the planet.

Don’t let this president and this Congress give our land away.