The Battle over Public Lands Pits Outdoorsmen, Hunters Against GOP


The Battle over Public Lands Pits Outdoorsmen, Hunters Against GOP

An ongoing push by some GOP congressmen to hand over large tracts of federal lands to the states, who will promptly turn around and sell them to the highest bidder, has made for odd political bedfellows.

Field & Stream is the latest to weigh in on the side of keeping the lands in federal hands, with a big piece in this month’s issue, entitled This Land Was Your Land: Why the battle over public lands is one sportsmen must win.

The future of hunting and fishing is under attack. States are trying to wrench control of public lands from the federal government in order to drill, mine, sell off, and—ultimately—steal our national sporting heritage. Here’s why public lands must remain in public hands.

Why shouldn’t states take control of federal public lands? This chart shows how states already boot sportsmen off areas they manage. No one knows the terms of future transfers, but if the past is a guide, public hunting and fishing access will be lost…

Our country is at a crossroads moment. If we let federal public lands be transferred to the states, most of them will be sold; there is just too much evidence to believe otherwise. But as it stands, every American hunter and fisherman can dream of someday adventuring West to experience the magnificence of our country, and do it on a shoestring if necessary, with kids in sleeping bags and ramen noodles on the campfire. This dream exists only because our public lands belong to every American, whether you live on a thousand acres or in a rented room. We are all—every U.S. citizen—invested in this, the very dirt of our nation. These lands are a bedrock institution of our country, as crucial as the Bill of Rights.

The magazine has to tread carefully, given its readership, so there’s nary a mention of the fact that land transfer is a mostly Republican obsession. A sidebar on “Heros and Villains” lists does name and shame two Republican Utah representatives, Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, but that’s about it.

It’s an odd day when left-wing outlets like ThinkProgress and The Guardian report favorably on the activities of hunters and fisherman, without ridicule or snark. But this particular issue has put outdoorsmen on the same side as tree-huggers and Democrats, for once.

For my part, I think it’s a really good idea to point out to Republican voters that the party is up to these shenanigans, because if anyone can stop it, the base can. There’s a time to be worried about reader backlash, and there’s a time to sound the alarm. This is the latter.

You may actually be wondering, why is this push coming from Utah? Well, the first and foremost reason is that the state of Utah stands to reap a huge, one-time windfall from a big auction of its lands. But the other reason is undoubtedly the fact that the Mormon Church is one of the largest landowners in the country, and will be first in line to buy up big tracts of the state once it goes on the block.

This brings me to my favorite piece on this issue, from High Country News. It places the Mahluer standoff (the Bundys are a Mormon family) in the context of the effort to sell off public lands, and really brings home what’s a stake for all of us in stopping this.

No one there seemed interested in the fate of the lands they were claiming in the takeover. None could explain why a mostly Gentile band of militants were now following what was almost entirely a Mormon-led insurrection, with a man named Ammon for the leader of the Nephites, at the head, or a man who calls himself Captain Moroni (Alma 59:13: “And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country”) on guard duty, or a spokesman like Finicum, whose ranch in Cane Beds, Arizona, was less than two miles from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) enclave of Colorado City. The militants seemed uninterested in how they might fit in to a renewed State of Deseret, even though the language that the Bundy leaders used was almost identical to the 19th-century plans for that kingdom, and the Malheur lies at the very northern expanse of the old State of Deseret claims. They did not see themselves as volunteers in a new version of the Nauvoo Legion from the Utah War of 1857-58 because none of them seemed to know, or be interested in, any of that history.

But then there’s this, which is the real kicker, here:

Buyers, in a world packed and competitive beyond the imaginations of those who set aside these unclaimed and abandoned lands as forest reserves and public grazing lands in the early 1900s, are now everywhere, planet-wide. As Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, when he was president of the American Lands Council, famously said of privatizing federal lands, “It’s like having your hands on the lever of a modern-day Louisiana Purchase.”

When that lever is pulled, and it will be, unless a majority of Americans know enough about what is at stake to oppose it, we will see the transformation of our country. Federal water rights that underpin entire agricultural economies, and that are critical to some of the last family farms and ranches in America, will be in play. Few Americans, even those in the cities of the East who know nothing about these lands, will be untouched by the transformation. Once the precedent for divesting federal lands is well set, the Eastern public lands, most of them far more valuable than those in the West, will go on the international auction block. The unique American experiment in balancing the public freedom and good with private interests will be forever shattered, while a new kind of inequality soars, not just inequality of economics and economic opportunity, but of life experience, the chance to experience liberty itself. The understanding that we all share something valuable in common — the vast American landscape, yawning to all horizons and breathtakingly beautiful — will be further broken.

This guy is 100% right. When our public lands are put up for auction, and they absolutely will be if they’re handed over to the states, then the buyers will be not just the Mormons, but the Chinese.

The Chinese are sitting on over $1 trillion US dollars in the form of US Treasuries, a byproduct of a decades-long trade imbalance and currency manipulation on their part. So they can outbid almost anyone on earth for our patrimony, and they surely will if it goes on the market.

Exactly like the Democrats’ efforts to whittle away at our gun rights, the Utah-led GOP push to transfer public lands is not going away with just one or two legislative defeats. There’s way, way too much money at stake. Like the man said above, it’s like having your hand on the lever of the Louisiana Purchase. They’re going to keep trying, and we’re going to have to keep making it clear that these lands are off limits, because they belong to all of us.

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Jon Stokes is Deputy Editor at

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