Is the great federal land debate over?

 

Every decade or so, people start pushing the idea of selling off big chunks of public land or transferring that land to state ownership and management. Outside of small parcels, it has never happened, probably because most of us support leaving public lands in federal hands.

With the recent pronouncements of Idaho's own Dirk Kempthorne, now Interior secretary, and Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho that large-scale federal land sell-offs are politically dead, it might appear that the latest attempt is finally over. Conventional wisdom says the West has grown up, and we all realize that we need those open spaces to bike, shoot, boat, ride, hike, climb and picnic in. Maybe so, but there are a couple of trends that bear watching as they lead to privatization of our birthright.

The first trend has to do with land transfers done in the name of economic development. In some cases, these transfers, small in acreage, may make sense if important public purposes are met. But in southern Utah, for example, it's much messier. There, booming development in St. George has led to a proposal to sell off 40 square miles of federal land, while at the same time protecting some wilderness, much of it in Zion National Park, and desert tortoise habitat.

Environmentalists oppose the bill; developers and the county support it. Its main purpose appears to be making more land available for the "New West" phenomena of second homes and footloose retiree money. This is a land exchange that caters to the upper middle class, and the irony here should not escape us. This is mountain bike country, get-your-piece-of-the-West land. Perhaps these folks need public land to play on, but they want private land to live on, preferably close to the public land. And if that private land needs to be removed from the public estate — so be it. This is not a small-scale transfer to allow an economically disadvantaged place like Salmon or Challis, Idaho, get some help. Just Imagine the cascade effect as other booming towns seek to dig deeper and deeper into our common estate.

Trend number two may be worse. It's the outsourcing virus that is sweeping agencies like the U.S. Forest Service. Here, an idea that made sense in the past when applied to urban services, such as trash collection, may be focused on 75 percent of all the jobs in the agency, including fire suppression. If we do this long enough, and the ideologues push for this hard enough, it's going to go like this: Why do we need the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, even the Park Service or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? So much of what they do has been outsourced; let's just get rid of them. Put some private sector, beltway, politically connected, market-mantra-chanting consulting firm in charge. It can manage the land, or else we could transfer the land to states. This move could make trend number one easier to accomplish.

While we're at it, let's be consistent. Why not outsource the Congress, the White House and the courts? Clearly, the private sector can be more efficient in the running of government than politicians can, and outsourcing is all about efficiency. But since when is efficiency the primary aim of government?

Through the years I have been a critic as well as a supporter of federal land management. But I have a touchstone for what public service can mean. I once worked as a seasonal ranger at a national park and found that you cannot replace what rangers and other park staffers do or the way they approach their jobs. It may sound overwrought and ridiculous, but many believe they are on the "staff" of the Grand Canyon, of the Sawtooths, Escalante, Rocky Mountain National Park. They work for the land they love. Can that kind of commitment be outsourced?

Right now, a majority of Americans want most public lands to remain public and under federal management. But pay attention. The debate won't be about that, as it should be, and it may not be a debate at all. The chipping away at our publicly owned lands will happen incrementally, over time. With the population growth in places like St. George, Utah, the battles will likely never end.

John Freemuth is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is professor of public policy and senior fellow at the Cecil Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University in Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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