Of Public Lands and Cicada Hatches

 By Chris Wood

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to be a part of a congressional roundtable discussion on “Hunting, Fishing and Shooting Sports” hosted by House Resources Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva (Arizona). The event featured representatives from the American Sportfishing Association, the Theodore Roosevelt Partnership, the National Wildlife Federation and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, among others, and offered an opportunity to share TU’s perspective on management of America’s public lands. 

The TU staff had developed some crackerjack testimony for me to deliver, but in truth, I didn’t use it.  My frustration with myopic and boneheaded proposals to sell or transfer public lands to private or state interests overcame me.  Public lands are the best idea America ever gave to people who fish and hunt or otherwise want to experience nature as God created it, without having to buy or beg for permission. To suggest that our land legacy, our children's inheritance, should be sold for a pittance is extreme and offensive. 

The return of the people who want to sell or take over public lands is reminiscent of the cicada hatch that happens every 17 years in certain parts of the East. These prehistoric looking bugs crawl from the earth and swarm, causing all sorts of inconvenience—getting caught in your hair (if you’re lucky enough to have any), getting eaten by your dog, causing you to slip on their viscera on the sidewalk—then their larval progeny crawl back into the earth not to be seen for another 17 years. 

Almost exactly 20 years ago, I wrote an op ed in the Washington Post that talked about the “county supremacy” movement, the child of the Sagebrush Rebellion, and their desire to “take back” public lands.

What I wrote 20 years ago applies equally well today:  “Lost in the rhetoric is one basic legal fact: At no time have the Western public lands belonged to the states. They were either ceded to the Union by eastern states or acquired through treaty, conquest or purchase by the federal government acting on behalf of all of the citizens of the United States.”

Let me be clear. Of course there are some public lands with high urban-expansion or other economic values that should be in state or private ownership. Just as there are some private lands with high conservation values that should be in public ownership. But the Great Barbeque approach that is driving the debate today is unhelpful and unproductive.  

This spring 10 western and two eastern legislatures considered 42 bills and resolutions seeking transfer of our American public lands to the states. Those resolutions were driven by the selfish interests that Teddy Roosevelt warned about 100 years ago, aiming to divide and sell the places that belong to all Americans as a birthright. But sportsmen and women across the country have risen to support public lands and cry foul at these misguided notions of transfer. Thousands of sportsmen and women called and wrote their legislators to tell them "our public lands are not for sale."

Of those 42 bills seeking transfer or sale of public lands, only four passed. Nearly every legislature in the West rejected the idea that we should jeopardize the future of public lands by transferring ownership.

In spite of their Cicadian predictability, and their unsuccessful track-record, proposals to sell, divest, or transfer public lands are dangerous. So, please contact your representatives in Congress to let them know that public lands belong to all of us, and we’re not willing sellers.

Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. He lives in Washington, D.C., and works in TU's Arlington, Va., headquarters.


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