A Conservative Defense of Public Lands

Conservation wasn’t always a partisan issue. Many of the great conservationists of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were Republicans — and, many of these, NRDC supporters.

Today we hear so many anti-conservationist comments from the Republican Party that we forget how different things used to be. The contrast between the GOP of today and the GOP of the recent past is perhaps most pronounced in area of public lands.

Last week Timothy Egan reported in the New York Times about Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum’s wacky ideas about public lands.

In one corner, Mitt Romney is saying that “[he doesn’t] understand the purpose” of our conservationist legacy. In his words, “Unless there’s a valid, legitimate and compelling public purpose, I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land.” In the other corner, Rick Santorum is promising to privatize these public lands. His reasoning is as follows:

The federal government doesn’t care about this land. They don’t live here, they don’t care about it. We don’t care about it in Washington. It’s flyover country for most of the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Santorum’s understanding of public lands is completely backwards. Our public lands system — which includes 190 million acres of national forest, 52 million acres of national parks and more than 500 million acres of other open space — was created precisely for the PUBLIC, and NOT for Washington bureaucrats like Mr. Santorum to give away for short-term political gains.

These comments are out of touch with public opinion. Egan cited a recent poll by Colorado College which found that 93 percent of Colorado’s voters agree that national parks, forests and wildlife areas “are an essential part of Colorado’s economy.”

Furthermore, in the broader historical context, the assault on public lands is a radical departure from the proud conservationist tradition of Republican leaders Nelson Rockefeller, Barry Goldwater, Teddy Roosevelt, and even Ronald Reagan. Though we had plenty of tough battles throughout the early years (with Democrats and Republicans alike), both sides, at the very least, seemed to understand some basic, fundamental principles of conservation. President Ronald Reagan described these shared values in remarks to a federal agency in 1984:

If we’ve learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense. Our physical health, our social happiness, and our economic well-being will be sustained only by all of us working in partnership as thoughtful, effective stewards of our natural resources.

Though we disagreed often, and on many issues, President Reagan ultimately understood the value of public lands and wild places and embraced the principle of conservation. During his presidency, Reagan signed into law some 43 wilderness bills, creating over 10 million acres of protected wilderness areas.

President Reagan believed that America’s public lands were a cornerstone of liberty, and a celebration of our heritage. He articulated these views in a message to Congress in 1988:

The preservation of parks, wilderness, and wildlife has…aided liberty by keeping alive the 19th century sense of adventure and awe with which our forefathers greeted the American West. Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution. In our own time, the nearly universal appreciation of these preserved landscapes, restored waters, and cleaner air through outdoor recreation is a modern expression of our freedom and leisure to enjoy the wonderful life that generations past have built for us.

We can be certain that Teddy Roosevelt would have strongly opposed Mr. Santorum’s plans to privatize our public lands. In his 8th annual message to Congress President Roosevelt declared:

Nothing should be permitted to stand in the way of the preservation of the forests, and it is criminal to permit individuals to purchase a little gain for themselves through the destruction of forests when this destruction is fatal to the well-being of the whole country in the future.

The father of modern conservation was not afraid to invoke morals. Teddy Roosevelt believed in the principle of intergenerational responsibility:

Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.

What Governor Romney and Senator Santorum fail to understand, in the end, is that public lands are a critical asset for ordinary people, and for all of us: these are the beautiful places that families and children flock to in the summers to experience America at its best. Above all, there is nothing “conservative” about sacrificing our national heritage for short-term political and economic gain. As President Reagan said:

What is a conservative after all but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live…And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live — our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children.

If public lands are liquidated, and handed over to the highest bidder, where are families going to take their vacations? Where are they going to hunt, hike, and fish? What would Reagan say now?

In Defense of Public Lands

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