As presidential candidates crisscross the country -- even dropping in on a few Western states -- some have been making revealing comments about the vast public lands that help to define the American West. For instance, former Gov. Mitt Romney said, "I don't know why the government owns so much of this land." In the same week, Rep. Ron Paul, well known for his libertarian views, was even blunter: "I want as much federal land to be turned over to the state(s) as possible." Then Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum weighed in, telling an Idaho audience, "We need to get (federal land) back into the hands of the states and even to the private sector. And we can make money doing it."
So why do we have these millions of acres of public lands? If you think the answer fits into a cookie-cutter narrative of federal vs. state interests, Republicans vs. Democrats, or even East vs. West, be prepared for a surprise. The real story involves a lot of Republicans, a lot of Democrats, a lot of Westerners and a long history of congressional support for protecting our nation's last wild places. Most important, it's a story that too many have forgotten in recent years.
Republican Theodore Roosevelt made conservation a hallmark of his presidency, ensuring that spectacular public lands such as the Grand Canyon would be preserved for the future enjoyment of all. As Roosevelt said, "There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country." This call was heeded throughout the 20th century, as leaders in Congress from across the West helped create the system of publicly owned lands that we have today.
Many Westerners were deeply involved in the creation of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976, a landmark law that established the principle that our federal public lands should by and large remain in public ownership for the benefit of all Americans. The bill received broad bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, including members from all points of the compass, but especially the Western states. The law itself was based on the recommendations of the bipartisan Public Land Law Review Commission, which was comprised largely of representatives from Western states.
The story of our public lands is one of bipartisan cooperation and leadership from the West. But then the story takes a turn, and things start to get tricky. After decades of strong support for public lands in Congress, we now face something very different: Public lands are under siege, particularly in the House of Representatives.
No fewer than 13 bills in the House of Representatives -- some already reported out of committees -- would end protections that our public lands have enjoyed for decades. The Antiquities Act, which was passed in 1906 and used by 15 Republican and Democratic presidents since, is under fierce attack. It provides each president with the opportunity to protect important public lands. Another law threatened by legislation is the Wilderness Act, which preserves important landscapes in their natural condition for recreation ranging from camping and hunting to fishing and hiking.
You could say that these congressional attacks are a response to public dislike of public lands, but the polls just don't back that up. A recent bipartisan poll conducted by Colorado College reaffirmed the idea that Americans, especially in the West, care deeply about our shared wild places and the benefits they provide to both wildlife and people. What's more, over 85 percent of all Westerners say that "our national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an essential part of the state's economy."
It is clear that most Americans embrace this incredible birthright and celebrate their natural heritage. So what inspires these determined attacks in Congress? One answer is that these lands are being used as a scapegoat in an argument over the appropriate role of the federal government. Some members of Congress may also be caving in to pressure from the many special interests that want to drill, dig and otherwise exploit our public lands for private gain.
Whatever the reason, we can't let these attacks end the story. We must ensure that these landscapes will endure. This is a teachable moment for everyone in the political arena -- from both parties -- about standing up for the wild places that are part of the living fabric of the West.
William Meadows is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He has been president of The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C., since 1996.