Number Cruncher: How safe are our public lands under President Trump?

Donald Trump’s party might be bent on selling off public lands, but no need to panic just yet: Even among Republicans, not everyone is behind the movement.

The GOP declared a new platform priority at the Republican National Convention this July: returning public lands to the states. States are required to maintain a balanced budget — even at the cost of selling off public land to the highest bidder, a move that could jeopardize recreation access on a huge scale. It’s little surprise that the threat of privatization has raised concerns within the outdoor industry.


Now, the rise of President-elect Donald Trump and the concurrent Republican takeover of congress has sounded the alarm for thousands of environmentally concerned Americans. Both the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Sierra Club, both prominent national conservation nonprofits that actively combat efforts to sell off federal land or transfer them to the states, currently sport homepage banners calling upon site visitors to “Protect Our Planet from Trump.”

The response has been massive. The Sierra Club reports 11,000 new monthly donors since the election — that’s more than the number of new donors they brought on between January 1 and Election Day. The NRDC says a post-election teleconference for supporters amassed an audience 20 times its typical size.

“There’s been an exponential increase in online actions, responses to our emails, and financial support for our work,” said NRDC Communications Assistant Kim Morasse.

Ultimately, this is a good thing for environmental nonprofits, says Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club’s lands protection program director. But is there any real cause for alarm?

The outdoor industry can let out a sigh of relief, at least for now: the answer is no. That conclusion is based on new congressional members’ advertised policy priorities and incumbents’ votes on previous measures, like a proposed Senate amendment to allow the transfer of federal lands to state and local governments (S.Amdt.838 to S.Con.Res.11), a proposed House amendment to limit the power of the Antiquities Act to create new National Monuments (H.Amdt.597 to H.R.2822), and a proposed House amendment regarding transferring public lands to private owners (H.Amdt.1370 to H.R.5538). As such, it’s a rough measure but a good indication that the majority vote on privatization on large-scale land transfer simply isn’t there.

Though individually unobtrusive, oil wells require access roads, and the resulting web alters the landscape along Colorado’s border with New Mexico. The promise of extraction industry profit is one reason many western states are petitioning the federal government to hand over federal lands. // Photo: Courtesy of Grame Churchyard, via Flickr.

In truth, things aren’t as bad from a public land or outdoor recreation perspective as some outdoorists have come to believe. The Outdoor Industry Association endorsed a panel of congressional candidates this year, and 77 percent won their races.

“Of all the environmental issues Trump talked about in the campaign, this is one of the few good ones,” said Manuel, adding that Trump voiced his disagreement with state transfer of lands during the primaries and that he promised to ensure access in a Field and Stream interview. And if the President-elect were to change his mind?

“I don’t think there’s much appetite [among congress members] to accelerate the privatization of public lands,” said Manuel. “It’s been a great talking point for politicians…but in terms of actually voting on it, it won’t go very far, even in this Congress.”

OIA’s Jessica Wahl said that’s partly because there are plenty of republicans who value public lands and are actively fighting to keep them public, either because they support hunting, fishing, and other recreational outlets or because they’re an important resource for ranchers and even extractive industries. And Wahl made it clear that OIA is willing to work with communities and politicians on multi-use strategies.

“We’re not asking communities to pick recreation over other industries,” she said. “We need everything; we just need to be smart about it.”

Making thoughtful compromises between conservation and resource utilization may be the key to bringing parties together on the matter in the future. Hate to compromise where the environment is concerned? Keep the Sierra Club and NRDC donations coming. And keep voting.