In March 2009, just two months after taking office, Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, a monumental compilation of 160 separate bills protecting two million acres of wilderness and adding dozens of new parks, rivers, trails and heritage areas to existing conservation systems across the country. Two years later, invoking Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationist legacy, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked members of Congress to submit their ideas for additional wilderness areas—“crown jewels”—that have strong local support for increased protection. Obama also banned uranium mining on public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, a move described by Arizona Senator John McCain as a “blow to job creation”—pun, presumably, unintended. Whatever the limitations of Obama’s environmental record, his stewardship of public lands has been a bright spot.
But these achievements, and much more, are at risk in November. At a time when many larger, arguably more pressing issues demand attention, little thought has been given to the fact that Teddy Roosevelt’s own party is running on a platform that could harm America’s National Parks and even sell off our public lands.
In fact, the central plank of Romney’s proposed energy policy would transfer control of energy production on federal lands to the states—a long-sought goal of the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion (a concerted Western campaign for more "local"—i.e. industry—control of public lands), most recently expressed in bills and ballot initiatives pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council and its right-wing puppets in several Western states. The sole stated purpose of such a transfer is to expedite oil and gas extraction on those lands by essentially monopolizing them for industrial use. As Romney knows, the states are far friendlier to fossil fuel extraction than the federal government, and their regulatory mechanisms are woefully ill-equipped to deal with complicated health and safety concerns, according to Christy Goldfuss, director of the public lands project for the Center for American Progress.
“When you have 700 million acres that belong to all Americans, that requires taking a holistic approach to managing those lands,” Goldfuss claims. The “multiple use mandate,” which stems from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, requires that public lands be available for both recreation and energy production. Transferring lands to the states, Goldfuss says, would mean that “the number one use for our public lands will be to drill for oil and gas.”
The Republican Party’s ultimate goal, however, is not state stewardship of public land but privatized ownership. The GOP platform this year explicitly questions whether public lands “could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership.” After deriding Theodore Roosevelt’s “big ideas of big forests and big national parks,” Republican Representative Steve Pearce of New Mexico told a conservative group in Colorado this month that Romney understands the need to “reverse this trend of public ownership of lands.” Romney himself famously told the Reno Gazette-Journal that he didn’t even know “what the purpose is” of public lands.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) already has a mechanism for selling public lands that are deemed “excess to the public's and Government's needs or more suited to private ownership.” A Romney administration would dramatically accelerate this process by both transferring lands to the states for them to sell and by starving the BLM and the National Park Service budgets so they are forced to triage some land holdings in order to save the rest. Proponents of austerity are already openly talking about “a more capitalistic approach” to public lands and “trimming the number” of national parks.