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.
Paul Ryan has demonstrated that he would like to do exactly that. Despite the fact that he lives in a house overseen by the parks service, Ryan’s 2013 budget would likely eviscerate the agency and force the partial closure of hundreds of national parks, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Ryan, an avid hunter, also proposed to directly sell millions of acres of those federal lands on which hunters rely, leading one outdoorsman to ask the brave question, “Is the Republican Party anti-hunting?”
But the Republican ticket’s hostility to the conservationist ethos isn’t fiscal; it’s ideological. Last year, Ryan voted for an unsuccessful amendment that would have repealed the president’s power to name new national monuments, as enshrined in Theodore Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act of 1906 and utilized by 16 of the 19 presidents since then. And when Romney ridiculed Obama in their second debate for taking action against North Dakota companies accused of allowing oil to spill into neighboring wetlands, he tossed the words “migratory bird act” out like a punch line.
Romney did not mention that the chairman and CEO of one of those companies, Continental Resources, is multi-billionaire Harold Hamm, recently described by the Wall Street Journal as the “discoverer” of North Dakota’s oil. He is also Romney’s chief energy advisor and a major fundraiser. By early September, Hamm had already far exceeded the legal limits for donations to candidates in addition to the nearly $1 million he gave to the pro-Romney SuperPAC, Restore Our Future. Not only is it literally true that Romney’s “plan is to let the oil companies write the energy policies,” as Obama claimed during the second debate, but he is also willing to go before the American people as a paid lobbyist for the industry. “This has not been Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal,” Romney said of President Obama in the debate—proudly implying that he would be all three.
The ultimate impact of these policies could be devastating: an analysis by Goldfuss and her public lands team identified five major national parks that could be seriously threatened by the Romney plan. Of course, the Romney team insists this is not the case, as they say their budgetary math will somehow sort itself out, and that America should trust him and his industry backers with our precious crown jewels.
“People forget now that one hundred years ago there were public men of good character who advocated the nation selling its public lands in great quantities,” Teddy Roosevelt recalled in his famous 1910 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, labeling the return of such arguments in his own time “one of the fundamental reasons why the special interests should be driven out of politics.”
A century later, natural gas wells are visible from Roosevelt’s beloved Elkhorn Ranch in the North Dakota badlands—where the young T.R. first gained an appreciation for pristine nature and the conservationist cause, and which now belong to a national park bearing his name. Those public men, and those private interests, have returned. The Romney campaign represents their most brazen attack on our public lands in over a century. For those interested in preserving what the writer Timothy Egan calls “one of the greatest perks of this democracy”—our massive, though nonrenewable, reserves of publicly-owned land—the stakes could not possibly be higher.