The same forces are at work today, trying to take our public lands and exploit them for short term gain, as in the days when Theodore Roosevelt stood up to the the timber barons, according to Land Tawney, president and chief executive officer of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
“It’s the oil and gas industry and the rich elites that want that for themselves,’’ said Tawney in an address at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s annual Roundtable held last Friday in Bloomington.
“And they are more organized now and I would say there is a lot more money at stake,’’ said Tawney. “Those pressures, we’re feeling those more and more every day.’’
Sportsmen and women are responding, Tawney told his audience. His organization, started around a campfire in 2004, has grown to include over 17,000 members, with chapters in 35 states and two Canadian provinces.
There are 640 million acres of public lands in the U.S. The lands are the backbone of the country’s $887 billion a year outdoor economy. Outdoor recreation is the third largest industry in the country, according to Tawney.
Most of all, public lands represent much of what distinguishes the U.S. from Europe, according to Tawney, a Montana native. “It’s a place where no matter how much money you make, who your parents are, you are on equal footing. That land does not care,’’ said Tawney.
It was unique to America when the Supreme Court decided in 1842 that wildlife belongs to the people, he pointed out.
The pressures on our public lands and resources keep coming. Tawney cited the take-over of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as one of the first examples of an attempted grab.
He pointed to these threats as among those deserving strong responses:
- The national Republican party’s policy platform continues to call for the sale and transfer of public lands, although many in the party do not support it.
- U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah introduced a bill that sought to sell wholesale more than 3 million acres of public lands. A large backlash by hunters, anglers and conservation groups led him to withdraw it.
- U.S. Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, in his role as chairman of the natural resources committee, continues to block the Land and Water Conservation fund that uses tax revenues from offshore oil leases for acquiring access to public lands. So far, hunters and anglers and other conservationists have kept the funds flowing by doing an end run with help from the Speaker of the House, but the issue will be returning soon, he warned.
‘Death by a thousand cuts’
There’s also what Tawney called a “death by a thousand cuts.’’ The budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior have declined for the past two decades, making it more difficult to properly manage public lands. The increase in wildfires has added to the challenge: Fire fighting now represents over 50 percent of the Forest Service budget, Tawney said.
He believes the cuts to the budgets are intentional. If the U.S doesn’t maintain access roads and manage the lands properly, it becomes easier to get rid of them, he warned.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke came into office saying he would oppose drastic cuts to those budgets, said Tawney. He has since supported proposals by the Trump administration for further cuts of 11 percent and 12 percent to the Agriculture and Forest Service and Department of Interior budgets, respectively.
Tawney also pointed to the administration’s rejection of the the sage grouse compromise that saw representatives of the oil and gas industry, ranchers, hunters and wildlife advocates negotiate a compromise approach to protecting the western bird and keeping it off the endangered list. The compromise was the product of 10 years of difficult negotiations. Its loss threatens sage grouse and the habitat for 350 other species, elk and pronghorn antelope among them. “The idea of compromise became a dirty word in this country,’’ said Tawney.
He charged that the recent National Monument review undertaken by Zinke under presidential orders represents a direct attack on the antiquities act that Roosevelt signed in 1906. President Donald Trump removed two million acres from declared monument areas. “The largest rollback in protection ever,’’ said Tawney.
BWCAW latest front
The latest attack on public lands came on the Friday before Christmas, when the Trump administration reversed the 20-year ban on mining adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that had been instituted by President Barack Obama.
“We still have a chance to protect that place,’’ said Tawney.
He pointed out that people in the country have responded in the past to protect our lands and resources at the times when they’ve been most threatened. Game laws came into being to stop market hunting. Hunters taxed themselves with the Pittman Robertson Act to provide habitat during the heart of the Great Depression. Ducks Unlimited formed as prairie soils blew away in the Dust Bowl.
That same grit is needed today, and it is showing itself, Tawney told his audience. The pushback against “no net gain” legislation is just one example he cited.
An audience member told Tawney that there are now attempts to close and restrict accesses to Minnesota’s lakes. What would he tell legislators and lakes associations working to privatize our waters, the audience member asked Tawney.
“Again, what makes America unique, our public lands and our public waters is what I would say. If you start to change this democratic spirit that is our public lands and our public waters and we lose kind of the spirit of America.’’
He said it is time to write letters and make phone calls to elected leaders, join organizations speaking on behalf of conversation, and just plain get involved. “Stay gritty,’’ said Tawney.
Information on his organization is available on the organization’s Facebook page or its website: https://www.backcountryhunters.org/