Whack-a-mole is enjoyable when the stakes are low. If you’ve popped in a token in search of carnival tickets, you’ll probably be smiling as you pound away at the targets popping up and down. When you’re playing for something important like freedom of access and our way of life, you may wear a more concerned look as you swing hard to connect.
One of the evergreen proposals in the West is the transfer of public lands. The push to sell persists despite most Wyoming residents opposing moves to place these grounds beyond their reach. While bills to divest the state of its land holdings have failed in the Legislature, expect them to get renewed interest now that William Perry Pendley has been named acting director of the Bureau of Land Management.
His appointment seems to make as much sense as nominating Hugh Hefner to oversee abstinence education as his philosophy appears at odds with his new responsibilities. Pendley has repeatedly called for the United States to sell all government-controlled lands. The BLM’s stated mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. That calling will be impossible to fulfill if your goal is to abandon all oversight in exchange for a payout.
Pendley’s policies will have a great impact on Wyoming considering how much of its acreage is in government hands. Wyoming’s tourism website notes that 48 percent of Wyoming’s open spaces are federal lands and nearly 6 percent is managed by the state. With eight national parks and 12 state parks, it boasts that there are “public lands as far as the eye can see.” Wyoming’s promoters recognize the appeal the lands hold for visitors.
Of course, we residents place a high value on these features as well. Colorado College’s State of the Rockies project annually polls people in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to generate the Conservation in the West Survey. According to the 2019 report, 70% of Wyoming residents polled cited access to public lands as a reason why they live in the West. They considered it a priority to live near, recreate on and enjoy public lands like national forests, parks or trails.
They also see these lands as vital to Wyoming’s economic outlook as 91% of Wyoming residents polled agree that the outdoor recreation economy is important to the future of the state and the Western U.S. They believe those who come to hunt, fish, camp, boat, see wildlife, as well as those who manufacture and sell equipment for those activities, will strongly impact our economy.
While government funding is tighter than it has been in the past, attempts to make up the gaps with land sales are shortsighted and will leave us poorer in the long run. We liken it to an angler selling his grandfather’s fishing pole to have money for food. Sure, he may have a full stomach for a few days, but the fisherman’s ability to provide for himself is diminished, and even if he gets the money to buy a similar rod and reel, it wouldn’t mean as much as the one he gave up.
“Who benefits?” is a question you should always ask when a plan is presented. In this case, we don’t see land sales leading to the most good to the most amount of people. We think it will lead to Wyoming’s gems becoming fenced-off resorts for the elite where uninvited visitors are not welcome.
Few have the deep pockets required to win the auctions for the most desirable spots, and that type isn’t known for sharing what they spend millions to procure. Those with local roots and long memories can tell stories about access being shut off — of watering holes, hiking trails, or hunting spots that have been lost. Whether the fence is built to keep the public out or to keep Mother Nature in, it keeps the two separated.
We can use past management history and common sense to see where this road leads. Imagine a beautiful chateau built in the middle of the National Elk Refuge, a neon-lit floating casino cruising the Flaming Gorge, or prime fishing or hunting areas reserved for the enjoyment of a few.
Selling public lands is a bad idea, but it’s not the only danger. Reducing protections can diminish the sights we love. If we don’t treat areas of critical environmental concern with restraint, you might end up with golden arches next to the petroglyphs, a gas station among the sand dunes or profitable pipelines driving wildlife from their primary habitat.
If we follow that path, we will lose far more than we gain. When the money from the sales are gone, all that we will be left with are broken promises, empty holes, and security fences. With natural resource profits dwindling, plans to sell the tourism goose that lays golden eggs would leave Wyoming in a permanent state of decline.
Right now you don’t have to ask permission to visit most of these lands. We enjoy a lot of freedom to do what we please, though it’s courtesy to close the gate behind you. Somewhere in a ritzy boardroom, there are already conceptual drawings of the private compounds they plan to build, and those visions typically don’t include space for the public.
More vigilance is required when a fox has been put in charge of a hen house. Pressure must be applied to make sure that the predator doesn’t act on his more destructive tendencies. The public must make it clear that we won’t let our treasures be traded away for fleeting, temporary gains and that we stand ready with hammers ready to knock down any proposals that try to curtail our access to our lands. Again and again and again if necessary.