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Public Lands in Private Hands?

The Senate's confirmation this week of the former Montana congressman Ryan Zinke as secretary of the interior has revived concerns about the future of public lands in the Trump administration. While Mr. Zinke has branded himself as a Teddy Roosevelt-style conservationist -- and resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last year to protest the party's support for transferring federal lands to states or private groups -- his record is spotty.

Just weeks ago, in early January, in one of his last acts as a representative, Mr. Zinke joined fellow House Republicans in voting for a rules package for the new Congress that makes it much easier for the federal government to transfer to state, local or even private control the public lands that rightfully belong to all Americans. According to The Hill, the new rules do this by prohibiting "the Congressional Budget Office from taking into account lost federal revenue from energy production, logging, recreation or other uses" when it analyzes the budgetary implications of proposed legislation.

By this move, Republicans essentially announced that they see zero value in the lands that this nation has paid and labored to protect for more than a century. They are greasing the skids to dispose of our collective property one chunk at a time.

These common lands are the glory of the continent. For three summers in my mid-20s, beginning in 2011, I worked on trail crews in the wild and rugged national forests of Idaho and Montana. Each morning, my crew would rise at dawn; we'd lace our boots, shoulder backpacks and go to work.

As Forest Service workers, we had a simple duty: to build and repair our country's public trails. Armed with picks, axes and saws, we spent our days chopping trees, hauling rocks, cutting brush, cleaning drains and constructing bridges.

We received little pay or praise, slept under the stars and labored in the sun. Our reward was fresh air, wildlife sightings and campfire camaraderie. When the day was done and we sat down to dinner, our calloused hands and aching backs testified to the exertions of our public service.

Those summers in the woods were the best of my life, and they have left me firmly dedicated to the roughly 600 million acres of national forests, grasslands, wildlife refuges and more that make up this country's conservation heritage. Many of my trail worker friends, meanwhile, still work for agencies like the National Park Service. Public lands conservation is a calling, and young Americans heed it. But for how much longer?

In January, Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, introduced legislation that called for the sale, or "disposal," of 3.3 million acres of public land in Arizona, Colorado, Montana and other Western states. He later withdrew that bill, under pressure from hunting and fishing groups, but another he introduced would eliminate hundreds of law enforcement personnel in the federal land agencies.
These actions are no anomaly. Senior Republicans are equally eager to gut the 110-year-old Antiquities Act, which President Obama used during his tenure to protect important L.G.B.T. and civil rights landmarks, secure sacred Native American sites and conserve vast areas of desert and ocean.

This anti-conservation agenda does not represent the interests of ordinary Americans but the desires of the wealthiest Republican donors. With their constellation of think tanks and advocacy groups, these donors have promoted the so-called land transfer movement, an effort to give Republican state governments control of most, if not all, of our national forests, wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management parcels. This effort, if successful, would destroy our conservation system and hand over huge tracts of priceless natural habitat to powerful private interests, particularly the fossil-fuel industry.

On Thursday, March 2, Mr. Zinke, wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, rode in to work at his new job in Washington on a horse named Tonto. He looked the part of the great outdoorsman. Now he must act it.

THIS IS A REPRINT OF AN ARTICLE WRITTEN BY JIMMY TOBIAS WHICH APPEARED IN THE MARCH 3RD EDITION OF THE NY TIMES

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If you have questions or want to know more about conservation issues, please contact David Pisaneschi at: dapadk@gmail.com or 459-5969.

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