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for people who care about the West

GOP risks much with its zeal to sell public estate


The Republican Party has formally embraced a policy to sell off America’s chunks of our public lands. That’s likely to prove as welcome as a hornet in a pair of swimming trunks.

The GOP 2012 Party Platform espouses a purely market-driven exploitation of natural resources, as opposed to the traditional American system that embraces both the free market and public ownership. The Republicans turned their backs on Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and are now heaping more sod on his grave with a national platform that reads:

Experience has shown that, in caring for the land and water, private ownership has been our best guarantee of conscientious stewardship, while the worst instances of environmental degradation have occurred under government control.”  [Emphasis mine.]

File that under rewriting history to fit a political ideology. Wiping out the bison, elk and bald eagles happened without government oversight. Americans used the power of democracy to rescue those species.  Yellowstone National Park is an example of public-spirited, public ownership. A private-sector alternative, say Disneyland, is a poor substitute. In the industrial Midwest a generation ago, rivers and lungs burned because of free-market disposal of “negative externalities.” We’ve cleaned our surface water and air with decades of government action, put in place by Republicans and Democrats both.

Here’s what the GOP plank says about National Forests: “Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership.”

The fact is, Westerners love their national forests and are partial to streams with water in them. In my home state, the Montana Conservation Voters Ed Fund recently asked Montana voters whether they thought public lands were (a) a public benefit, supporting their economy and outdoor way of life or, (b) a liability, locking up natural resources, imposing federal control and costing jobs.

Some 84 percent of Montanans picked (a), expressing favor with public lands. That included three out of four Republicans and four out of five Independents.

The GOP plank concludes: “The enduring truth is that people best protect what they own.”

Yes, and people have a strong sense of ownership in their public land, water and wildlife. Unlike the ideologues who wrote this plank, most Americans understand not only the concept of “mine” and “yours,” but also “ours.”

No candidate swears an oath to a party platform. So let’s ask any candidate running for office this season. Do you want to sell or maintain our public lands? And if your choice is to sell, whose fishing hole, campsite or water source is first on the chopping block? 

Image: Coming soon to a fishing hole near you?

Ben Long is an author, conservationist and outdoorsman in Kalispell, Mont., where he happily lives surrounded by millions of acres of national park and forest. He is senior program director for Resource Media.