Public and Not-So-Public Attacks on Public Lands

Secretary Zinke poses for a casual photo during a fishing trip to Glacier National Park.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has spent his term promenading from sea to shining sea promoting America’s national treasures. While publicly projecting a conservationist ethos, Secretary Zinke has been challenging the government’s existing conservation policies. On April 25, 2017, Secretary Zinke held a press briefing to announce the review of the 27 national monuments established since 1996. The review was charged with determining whether to consider shrinking or removing the monuments altogether. Monuments being reviewed include the President Obama–designated Bear Ears National Monument and San Luis Obispo County’s own Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Secretary Zinke went on to call the large national monuments a “federal land grab,” in reference to Cliven Bundy’s three-decade crusade against the federal government’s ownership of land, and promised to increase access for private interests. According to the longstanding conservation policy of “multi use” that dates back to Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, the government is supposed to produce as much economic value from the land as possible while preserving the natural ecosystem therein. Laying out the government’s conservation ethos, Roosevelt said, “The rights of the public to the natural resources outweigh private rights, and must be given its first consideration.”

The national monuments were created using the Antiquities Act of 1907, which gives the president the power to “designate the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Originally, this framework yielded designations of small acreage for the national monuments. Aldo Leopold, in the mid-20th century, persuaded the public of the necessity to protect entire ecosystems in order to achieve “proper care.” This led to the modern standard of protecting large swaths of land and limiting private use to protect wildlife. Conservation policy since then has been a balance between access and preservation, which Secretary Zinke says has “drifted too far away from multiple use into single use.”

During the 60-day public comment period on the National Monument Review, over 1.4 million comments were submitted. Nonprofits, including The Wilderness Society and Sierra Club, have been launching efforts against this review, and so far Secretary Zinke has announced four monuments will remain protected. This review continues with public resistance and a deadline of August 24. Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior and the Trump administration are launching a subversive attack on public lands.

Sic ’Em

While the 1964 Wilderness Act remains conservationists’ biggest achievement of the era, the 88th Congress passed another piece of major bipartisan legislation: the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Signed by LBJ [President Lyndon Baines Johnson], the LWCF generates nearly a billion dollars annually from offshore oil leasing and fees, which it spends on federal, state, and local park improvements and acquisitions.

Around Santa Barbara, for example, the LWCF funded the purchase of much of Santa Cruz Island and Carrizo Plain National Monument with the help of the Nature Conservancy. The LWCF also funds matching grants to state projects, including the Carpinteria Bluffs acquisition in 2008, the Andree Clark Bird Refuge, and Santa Maria’s river acquisition.

Although the program has been hugely popular since its creation, the LWCF has faced attacks from the right throughout its five-decade lifetime. President Reagan was elected in part due to his support of the Sagebrush Rebellion, the first large anti–federal lands protests, which started in the 1970s. Notoriously, when then–interior secretary James Watt discussed enacting Reagan’s anticonservationist promises and the potential blowback the administration might face, Reagan said to him, “Sic ’em.”

Watt immediately began by proposing to sell 4.4 million acres of land and expanded oil leases while dropping the permit system that funded the LWCF. These actions were widely disapproved of except by the antigovernment base that Reagan needed for his reelection. Watt was eventually ousted in 1983 due to public outcry, but during his tenure, he still managed to drastically lower funding of the LWCF.

When Newt Gingrich and his right-wing Congress proposed their budget in 1995, it featured massive cuts to federal programs, including gouging the LWCF to its lowest funding level of $138 million. Despite an increase of funding during Bill Clinton’s administration, the LWCF has remained at these low levels of funding, even though the incoming oil-lease revenues top out at over $1 billion annually.

President Trump recently released his budget for fiscal year 2018, which featured $11.7 billion in Interior Department cuts, including a cut to the LWCF from 2017’s $450 million to $64 million. When asked about the LWCF, Zinke told a congressional committee that he was indeed a “big supporter.” However, the proposed drop in LWCF funding highlights a clear change in the government’s commitment to public lands that depend on those revenues.

States Sponsors of…

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took a break from his American Tour on July 20 to speak to the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Held behind closed doors, the meeting raised alarm among conservationists due to ALEC’s long history of leading the right’s attack against public lands. ALEC is a Koch brothers–funded initiative that aims to influence conservative members of state legislatures through lobbying and “model bills,” including a bill for “the transfer of public lands to the Western states” and a policy to “promote a comprehensive strategy for energy security, production, and distribution.”

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho “have passed, introduced, or explored legislation” that mirrors ALEC’s model bills. On the federal level, many libertarian congressmembers elected in the “Tea Wave” election of 2010 formed the Federal Land Action Group (FLAG), whose goal is to sell off some federal land and return control of the rest to states. In 2015, the FLAG congressmembers successfully prevented the LWCF from being reauthorized by the September sunset clause, only to have the bill reauthorized for three years after huge outrage and protests.

Secretarial Pardon

In poll after poll, the American people overwhelmingly support the conservation of our public lands and the LWCF. According to a poll conducted by Colorado College of Western states, 75 percent of voters support renewing the LWCF, and 58 percent of voters oppose giving states control over federal lands. Similarly, a report by economists from Colorado State shows the average economic value of the national parks to be $523 per household.

So far, Secretary Zinke has pardoned five monuments and is expected to meet an August 24 deadline for additional recommendations to President Trump. With an eye to past administrations, this one is chipping away at the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Antiquities Act more efficiently than ever, thus weakening the bedrock of our country’s conservation policy.


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