By Shawn Perich
Earlier this year, nearly all GOP members of Congress voted to sell off all of our federal lands except for national parks and national monuments. While their action received precious little media coverage, the few reports I saw called the vote “symbolic” as though that somehow softened its underlying intent.I have another word for that vote: un-American. My Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines un-American as follows: not characteristic or consistent with American customs, principles, or traditions. So, if you threaten to sell off the lands that are our American birthright, the shoe fits. Since the members of Congress sitting on the other side of the aisle hardly raised a peep about the vote, I guess the other shoe fits, too.
I live in a county where the federal government is the largest landowner, its property being the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It is hard to imagine these properties being up for sale or, for that matter, who or what might buy them. Timber companies have largely sold off their lands. Mining companies only need lands where minerals are found.
I suppose the thousands of miles of undeveloped lakeshore could be divvied up and sold to developers. But this begs the question: Who would be responsible for building the road network and power grid for what is now a wilderness area? I don’t think our county, population 5,000, or our local electric co-op have the wherewithal for such a task.
What happens to the loggers who harvest wood on the national forest? What about the resorts, outfitters and guides whose businesses rely on public lands and waters? What about our public boat and canoe landings? For that matter, will we continue to manage our fish and wildlife when the public has no access to them?
The concept of selling off our public lands raises, deeper, more troubling questions. Our national forests are the well springs of most of our nation’s fresh water. Protecting water quality is the top priority of public land managers. Most private land owners—large and small—protect water quality only they are compelled by regulations or paid with government subsidies. We don’t really know what would happen to our nation’s water supply if our national forests were sold to the highest bidder.
Who would be responsible for wildfire suppression? Forests across the West and even here in Minnesota have been wracked with huge wildfires during the past 15 years. The costs associated with fire-fighting and damage to public and private property are astronomical. Once a forest becomes private, will the fire protection of both the forest and, more to the point, adjacent communities become privatized as well?
I doubt that any of the members of Congress who showed their partisan solidarity by voting to sell off our public lands really considered any of these questions. The herd mentality that defines our polarized politics isn’t conducive to critical thinking. The handful of politicians who stand apart by voicing their individual thoughts and opinions get little traction with their colleagues or the media. Many other politicians, ever mindful of where their campaign funding comes from, are mute on issues that really matter greatly to their constituents.
For this constituent, a vote to sell off our public lands is one of those issues. My business and the economy of the community I live in are largely dependent on an abundance of public lands and waters. Those same places provide the fishing and hunting that defines my way of life. I view the vote to sell off those lands—symbolic or not—as the first shot in an attack on me and mine.
The battle begins in the West, where vast amounts of resource-rich federal lands collide with deep-seated resentment of the federal government. The motive is greed, because resource extraction gets a whole lot easier with the federal government and its damnable regulations are out of the way. Right now, the only ones who seem to be standing up to the profiteers are people who value what those federal lands presently provide to Americans: Hunting, hiking, fishing and paddling are outdoor experiences available and accessible to all.
Profiteers and land-grabbers have been around for a long time. The difference now is they’ve amassed political might, as evidenced by the “symbolic” vote. While they may not yet have the political strength to storm the gates and take our lands, the people who love the land may not be strong enough to fight them off when they do. Running roughshod over any opposition, Congress is pummeling every aspect of conservation with impunity. Precious few politicians are looking for the sportsman’s vote these days.
Yet fight we must. If we lose our public lands, we’ll also lose our American soul. To leave the confines of civilization for the ad venture and challenge of the Great Wide Open is the core of our national identity. Nowhere else has the majestic vastness of America’s public lands. If they are taken away, we’ll never get them back. Americans who love the Great Wide Open must fight to make sure this land remains our land…forever.