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Policy & Government

Combatting state land grabs

Industry and environmental leaders fight to keep protected lands under federal control.

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2015 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 5 – 8. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

The Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness is part of Utah's attempt to take back land from the federal government.
The Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness is part of Utah’s attempt to take back land from the federal government – photo by David Clucas.

Imagine access to favorite hiking trails shuttered. Quiet mountain escapes sold off to private bidders. Drilling operations taking over pristine desert landscapes. This could be the future of some of the West’s beloved wild places if recent state efforts to take over federal lands move forward, according to a coalition of outdoor industry insiders — and it’s high time we all did something about it.

At Outdoor Retailer’s Public Land Heist Roundtable discussion at the Downtown Marriott, put on by the Outdoor Industry Association, Outdoor Alliance and Conservation Alliance, panelists urged a standing-room crowd to take the threat from state land grabs seriously. “We believe the efforts to seize our public lands and turn them over to states is an existential threat,” said panelist Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation policy organization. “This fight matters, and your voices matter.”

Six other panelists representing a diverse group of stakeholders — moderator Steve Barker of the Outdoor Industry Association, Whit Fosburgh of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, John Sterling of the Conservation Alliance, Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies, Adam Cramer of the Outdoor Alliance, and Peter Metcalf of Black Diamond — joined to deliver one strong message. “We’re going on the record saying, ‘This is a bad idea,’” Sterling said.

To date, 11 states and Congress have advanced proposals seeking to transfer federal public lands to state control — most notably in Utah, where in 2012 Governor Herbert signed a law that would award the state management rights over millions of acres of federal lands (the legal status of the law remains unclear). And in the past year, Western states introduced 36 takeover bills to their legislatures (six passed), while 10 were introduced to Congress. Why the boom? Rokala pointed to three driving factors: groups with a privatization agenda; the allure of going after resources like oil, gas, and logs; and a general anti-government mindset.

Panelists stressed how vital this management issue is to the outdoor industry as a whole. “When we talk about the outdoors, we’re talking about public lands,” Cramer said, emphasizing that 70 percent of Western climbing spots (excluding California), 43 percent of whitewater rivers, and 12,000 miles of singletrack exist on federal lands. Implications for business are clear: “This industry’s growth has been built on the vibrancy our federal lands provide us,” Metcalf said. These land transfers wouldn’t be simply a matter of different uniforms for rangers, panelists argued: Outdoor recreation opportunities would suffer under state control. According to Rokala, states must manage their lands for profit, not outdoor fun: “Access is an afterthought.” Many fear states would also open up lands to extractive industries, a move Metcalf compared to “embracing the Confederate flag.” And that’s only if states can afford to hold on to the newfound property; opponents say state budgets could never keep up with public land management demands, forcing states to sell them off.

What’s more, public opinion also supports federal lands, Weigel said, sharing results from her firm’s polling research: Voters told her parks “are one of the best things our federal government does.” Overall, the firm found 52 percent of people opposed state control of public lands and 42 percent favored it. Notably, the only group that consistently preferred state management were people who hadn’t visited a national park in the past year.

With so much at stake, panelists also pointed out steps the outdoor industry should be taking to fight such land grabs. Fosburgh pushed brands to communicate conservation messages to their clients and to lobby local elected officials against state transfers—his goal is to “make this issue toxic for state and federal politicians,” he said.

One silver lining to this land tug-of-war is that it presents an opportunity for the outdoor industry to engage people to fight for even more federal public land protection, panelists said. Land management agencies “are being starved to death” financially, Fosburgh said. “Let’s use this issue to build support for better public land management and funding.” Sterling added, “We hope to galvanize a renewed commitment for standing up for protection of these federal lands.” Such energy can be put toward advocating for new wildernesses and national monuments, he said: “These designations happen because voters want them.”

And if those new protected places inspire a few more people to get out and trying mountain biking, paddling, or backpacking? So much the better.

–Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan