When it comes to protecting the future of our public lands, make no mistake: we're in for a hell of a fight. We were already slugging it out with the land transfer movement before November 8, 2016—and things just got nastier. The Republican Party retained control of the Senate and the House, won the White House, and barring a miracle, they'll have a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court within the first 100 days of Trump's presidency. They also now control roughly two-thirds of state legislatures and two-thirds of the country's governors' mansions. Now, there are a lot of reasons why all of this bodes poorly for our country's near- and long-term future—but I'd like to focus on the one that's nearest and dearest to our hearts and our freezers here in Montana: public land.
Last summer, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the Grand Old Party officially made the sale or transfer of federal public lands one of the planks of its 2016 platform. Here's how they put it: "Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states." Here's the full GOP platform document.
If you're not familiar with the land transfer movement, and you like to do things outside on public land—fishing, hunting, skiing, rock climbing, walking your dog, camping, birding—then hurry up and take a crash course. I suggest you start with Outside's February 2016 primer, "The Massive Land Deal That Could Change the West Forever." I write for Outside, too—they're good people, and I know firsthand that their fact-checkers are tenacious.
The land transfer movement is the most immediate threat to the way we live our lives here in Montana and in the west at large. I mean, sure, I've got my eye on Vladimir Putin and ISIS, too, but I don't foresee ISIS death squads sneaking across the Canadian border and ambushing me while I'm grouse hunting in the Bridgers. And even though I know Putin likes to fish, with his shirt off—really, that's a thing—I'm not too worried about him air-dropping the spetsnaz into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I lived in Alaska, eh Sarah Palin?
Speaking of the former mayor of Wasilla, she's a top contender for chief of the Interior Department. Many of you may remember Palin from all those zany "eureka moments" on Sarah Palin's Alaska, or from her stint as punchline to John McCain's campaign in 2008, when she gave us gems like "Drill, baby, drill!" Whatever you can say about Sarah Palin—and there's a lot—she's not remotely qualified to manage the agency that's responsible for the Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks, an outfit that employs thousands of scientists, law enforcement officers, surveyors, and land managers who do the hard work of making sure that our public lands provide the greatest benefit for the greatest number of users. Former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is also on the list, who, while also possessing a flair for seething populism, at least vetoed a bill in 2012 from her own legislature to force the U.S. Congress to turn over all Arizona public lands to the state.
That was the year that a non-profit group called the American Lands Council began preaching the gospel of dumping public land all over the west to any state legislator or county commissioner who would listen, or who was scared of getting primaried out by someone less principled who had the backing of the ALC. Led until recently by Utah State House Rep. Ken Ivory, and now by Montana's very own State Sen. Jennifer Fielder, the ALC is heavily funded by 501c4 "dark money" entities affiliated with über-libertarians like the Koch Brothers. If you think I'm just being a partisan fear-monger, read Jane Mayer's book Dark Money about the history of the Koch family and the extreme right-wing billionaire donor class, paying particular attention to how they've hijacked our political system since Citizens United opened the floodgates in 2009. The ALC is one of hundreds of heads to grow out of the Hydra that Citizens United birthed, and the organization has strong support on Capitol Hill from Utah's Rep. Rob Bishop & Sen. Mike Lee, Idaho's Sen. Raul Labrador, and Texas' Sen. Ted Cruz, among others. Their central argument is that states would do a better job of managing our 640 million acres of federal public land than federal government agencies responding to a "landlord" back in D.C. It makes for great populist sloganeering, but it's a load of shit.
Multiple states, including Wyoming, have commissioned studies to get a sense of the cost-benefit breakdown of transferring federal public lands to state management, and as Wyoming's recently released study reveals, the scales crashed decidedly on the side of "keep it public." As Wes Siler noted in his piece on the Wyoming study, the arch-conservative state, which has an economy based on cattle ranching, oil, and coal, was still able to see the forest for the trees. They didn't have to spend too much time arguing among themselves to agree that making $1.79 billion off of 25 million acres of public land without paying a dime of the $170 million annual federal management price tag is a damn good deal.
The romance between the ALC and western county commissions has started to sour, too. Dozens of counties have been helping to foot the bill for ALC's snake oil sales tours with taxpayer dollars—yes, that's right, taxpayers in counties across the west are paying for lobbyists to orchestrate the sale of their public land—but they've gotten little in return, except blowback from residents who think paying Ken Ivory and Jennifer Fielder to blow smoke is a waste of money.
Even our President-elect, who is not known for his sophistication where the intricacies of foreign or domestic policy are concerned, smelled a rat. In an interview last summer with Field & Stream, he said this about the land transfer movement: "I don't like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don't know what the state is going to do . . . I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble?"
Trump, flawed messenger as he is, hit the nail on the head: The long-con of the land transfer movement is to transfer federal land to the states so that they can short-sell it to developers, mining companies, timber companies, and oil & gas outfits. They talk a big game about wanting to see better management by locals, but it's hard to imagine how locals will manage the land better when it's sold off and then sealed off with a fence—which is exactly what will happen, since, as the Wyoming report makes clear, the states do not have the budget or the personnel resources to manage millions of additional acres.
So, should we take heart that President-elect Trump said the right thing to Field & Stream about public lands last August, probably off-the-cuff? You tell me—do you think Trump will deliver on his promise to build the wall? (He's already said he'd be okay with a fence, which we more or less already have. Are you disappointed?). Do you think he'll actually ban all Muslims? (He's already walked that back.) Do you think he'll bring all those manufacturing jobs back to Cleveland and Pittsburgh? Wanna buy some beachfront property in Arizona?
Donald Trump campaigned as an empty husk hawking cheap platitudes about restoring the U.S. to the Norman Rockwell days of the post-WWII era when we were a manufacturing juggernaut (and when schools were still racially segregated, and when the CIA was orchestrating the assassination of Iran's democratically elected leader, and when you could put a match to the Cuyahoga River and set it on fire, etc.). In the real world, where I live, pretty much everyone realizes that those days are gone and gone forever—and I realize, too, that Trump is going to have to find someone to fill that empty husk with policies that will satisfy the Republican Congress that he now has to deal with as president. That Congress, ladies and gentlemen, is led increasingly from the far-right, by members of the Freedom Caucus who rose to prominence in many cases by out-crazying their primary opponents in Republican contests across the south and midwest. They are also the Children of the Kochs, and they do not listen to you, as you've probably noticed. That's probably why you consistently give them a Congressional approval rating around 15%. These same fearless leaders want your public lands, and they want them bad.
In their first week in the new session, the Republican Congress is already considering two public land bills: H.R. 866, would give states the right to manage natural resources leases on federal public land within their boundaries; the other, H.R. 1484, would transfer millions of acres of Nevada federal lands to the state. In the words of public land hunting legend Randy Newberg, "That didn't take long." No, Randy, it didn't, and we can expect this shit to continue rolling downhill.
We are the only barriers against the destructive forces that have aligned against us and who have put our public land in the crosshairs. (Don't accuse me of partisanship—I didn't write the Republican Party's 2016 platform, they did that all by themselves.) I don't know about you, but I'm not going to wait for Donald Trump to stand up to them. I'm going to write to all three members of my Montana congressional delegation and call their Bozeman and D.C. offices to make sure they know that anyone who's licking their chops over my public land is wasting their saliva. I'm also going to take every opportunity to introduce my friends to new places in the Montana outdoors, and to continue helping to build a culture of outdoors stewardship and conservation-mindedness in everything I do. I'm also going to keep a sharp eye on the members of the Montana House & Senate, who will be meeting from January to April 2017. If I catch a whiff of support for public lands transfers from any of them, I'll be sure to let them know that they're being watched, and I'll be sure to let you know who they are. I encourage you to do the same.