By Matt Skoglund of NRDC’s Bozeman, MT office. This blog was first published in the Bozeman Magpie on February 23, 2012.
In the past few months, several of the remaining candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have made shocking comments about the value of public lands in America.
Mitt Romney said, “I haven’t studied it, what the purpose is of the land…. Unless there’s a valid, and legitimate, and compelling governmental purpose, I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land. So I haven’t studied it, what the purpose is of the land.”
At a campaign stop in Idaho, Rick Santorum said, “There’s a lot of land out there that is land that can and should be managed by stewards who care about that land…. The federal government doesn’t care about it, they don’t care about this land…. We need to get it back into the hands of the states and even to the private sector. And we can make money doing it, we can make money doing it by selling it.”
And Ron Paul noted that he wants “as much federal land to be turned over to the state as possible” and “for the best parts sold off to private owners.”
Mustering a Seth Meyers impersonation from Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, I ask, “Really?”
As recreationists on public lands (a huge collective that includes, among others, skiers, anglers, hunters, trail-runners, wildlife-watchers, mountain-bikers, climbers, backpackers, and hikers—or, in other words, pretty much all of Bozeman), you should be outraged. The public lands that surround Bozeman are the lifeblood of our town. The Gallatins, Bridgers, Madisons, Absarokas, a little park called Yellowstone; imagine if they were privately owned by a few oil barons? This is not hyperbole; privatization and profit are the underlying themes of their comments.
Through decades of public service devotion and good fortune, those millions of acres belong to all of us, and we benefit greatly from them. After living here for a couple of years, a friend of mine noted, “I make a lot less money in Bozeman, but I feel so much wealthier here.” I could not agree more, as, regardless of your income status, our spectacular public lands make all of us filthy rich. (I’m referring only to the aesthetic value of our public lands, which doesn’t even begin to quantify the massive economic impact of such lands in our region.)
I own a small patch of dirt a few blocks north of Main Street, but pretty much every weekend I’m out doing something on public land or a public river. I cannot fathom the loss of such access; it’s why I live here. And I’m not alone.
Today, our public lands are more important than ever. With smartphones, Facebook, iPads, and Twitter, our minds are so over-stimulated we can barely hear ourselves think. Yet, whenever we need to “get out,” our public lands are there, waiting for us. With more people vying for space and a variety of uses on our public lands, can you imagine selling off even a few trailheads? Imagine if, this summer, Sourdough Canyon, the upper Madison or the Bangtails were suddenly off-limits?
The irony is that as much as Santorum, Romney, and Paul want to portray themselves as apple-pie-eating American patriots, by questioning the value of our public lands or promoting their privatization, they sound like proud European aristocrats. Against the gold standard of America, our European counterparts have far less public land to enjoy. Opportunities to fish and hunt –beloved Montana pastimes — are seriously limited. In Montana, you can buy a fishing license and then wade or float any river in the state. Just as easily, you can buy an elk-hunting license and chase wapiti in any mountain range.
Not so in Europe.
I have been fortunate enough to fly-fish in Ireland and Scotland. Both countries are spectacular, but it’s a pain in the arse to fish over there. You have to first find out who owns a particular river or section of river, and then you have to pay to rent that section for the day (or sometimes for the week, if that’s the minimum). Depending on the river or time of year, it can get bloody expensive.
While I have loved my trips across the pond (I’m a sucker for wild Atlantic salmon and dimly lit pubs), each trip has made me more grateful for America’s public lands and rivers. Simply put, we’re really lucky, but we need to protect what we have.
Santorum’s comment about a federal government that doesn’t care for public land is an ill-considered insult to the many thousands of federal employees working hard to maintain our public lands. In the greater Bozeman area, we have plenty of neighbors that work for the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — people who have devoted their careers to our public lands. Santorum’s comment was an undeserved slap in the face, and this from a guy aspiring to be their ultimate boss.
Lastly, there’s the unintended irony of their statements as three guys desperately trying to “out-conservative” one another. In fact, their chosen words could not be more un-conservative. A true conservative would speak about the importance of conserving our public lands. Questioning the inherent value of the land or proposing to sell them to the highest-bidding natural gas company runs contrary to the belief system they claim to represent. Conservative. Conservation. Conserve.
America’s public lands are a treasure and the envy of the world. We need leaders that talk about how they are going to defend our public lands, not how they can sell them off to make a quick buck.
Photo Credit: Dan Skoglund