In February, Mitt Romney told the editorial board of the Reno Gazette Journal that he was not sure “what the purpose” of federal lands was. A curious reaction from the former administrator of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, given that particular Olympics benefitted greatly from federal lands that hosted a number of the key venues.
But as a refresher, it might be worth taking a more in-depth look at the value of federal lands. Foremost, our nation’s federal lands are truly one of the wonders of the world, representing a natural heritage that has few rivals. And Americans should be proud of the fact that our nation’s forefathers, such as Teddy Roosevelt, had the foresight to establish the world’s first governmental program to protect these incomparable areas for future generations.
But if esoteric reasons are not enough, let’s talk about dollars and cents. Federal lands and waters, and more specifically the resources managed by the Department of Interior (DOI), are only second to the Internal Revenue Service in generating income for the US Treasury. The hundreds of millions of acres that are held in trust by the federal government have proven to be a tremendous investment fund for the US taxpayer.
If those resources were turned over to private entities or the states, the taxpayer would stand to lose out on billions of dollars in lost revenue. In addition, the system of federal lands is also a tremendous economic engine for the nation. A July 2012 economic report from DOI found that federal lands managed by the agency generated “over two million jobs and approximately $385 billion in economic activity in 2011.” For example, in the state of Wyoming, DOI estimated that 167,207 jobs were supported by DOI activities. Given that Wyoming’s population tops out at 568,158, nearly one in three jobs exist in the state due to the presence of public lands.
Maybe the oddest part of Romney’s proclamation is that his donors are almost certainly appreciative of the value of federal lands. If they were not, then they probably would not be trying so hard to acquire them for their own benefit/profit. For example, the Koch brothers have been funding a number of legislative efforts that would allow Western states to seize federal lands.
Those who stand to benefit the most are the oil and gas companies that currently have to share royalties with the taxpayers for the privilege of using federal lands. Romney’s just released energy plan is just another step in that direction by transferring control of federal lands to local entities. This plan would allow drilling to take place anywhere, even within in National Parks like Yellowstone and even in wilderness areas.
These initiatives would simply eliminate the middleman, and hand over the wealth inherent in these lands to an elite few.
Romney might claim he does not understand the worth of federal lands, but his actions seem to indicate the exact opposite. How else can he explain why his proposed policy initiatives and his dirty polluter funders are trying their damndest to pilfer the nation’s natural heritage from the rest of us who own them now?