Calls to turn federally managed lands over to states have demonstrated a zombie-like persistence, appearing in multiple state legislatures over recent years (orchestrated by a Koch brothers-funded program) and most recently in the party platform emerging from the Republican National Committee’s convention last month.
The move prompted a swift response from the Outdoor Industry Association, a group which now runs its own political action committee to support pro-conservation and outdoor recreation candidates, and has contributed to Sen. Martin Heinrich in the past. Their letter to the RNC chairman began with the stats that tend to open most eyes: The association counts more than 1,300 members and calculated a $646 billion economic impact and 6.1 million jobs supported in their latest round of research, published in 2012.
That business depends on access to America's public lands, and the policy of transferring those lands back to states puts that access at risk. The trade association aims for balanced and reasonable policies, says Alex Boian, senior director of government affairs for OIA, but these lands are the backbone of the outdoor industry, and any threat to them is an existential threat to that industry.
"The answer is not to turn these lands over to states, disguised as better management, but is instead to continue to seek improvements in the practices and processes that lead to conflict in the first place," he wrote to the RNC chairman.
Research shows that states can't afford to manage public lands—the costs of fighting wildfires alone, which ran at $155 million in New Mexico in 2011, could bankrupt state budgets—so the result would likely be the sale of the lands to the highest bidder, and the end of public access.
"Studies have shown that transferring these lands is not necessarily going to be profitable in the long run—that states aren't going to be able to manage them, that it's going to be a losing economic battle," says Tania Lown-Hecht, communications director with the Outdoor Alliance. "Even if you do sell off all this land and open it up for oil and gas drilling, those rural communities aren't necessarily benefitting from that."
Instead, that money would go to big companies, and, briefly, to the state government.
The "public land heist," as the Outdoor Alliance calls these bills, she says, seems to stem from broader, more deeply entrenched problems.
"I think in some ways the public land heist is a symptom of greater inequality," she says. The increasing divide between rich and poor has also seen a widening gulf between urban and rural communities.
"There are a lot of macroeconomic forces that have left rural communities behind, and I think public lands become a flash point for a lot of bigger, cultural issues, a lot of which are pinned on government," she says. As a result, we see more anti-government sentiment, and that leads to a desire to get federal management off these lands. The irony is that selling them off would kill the goose and end the supply of golden eggs.
Headwaters Economics analyzed the localized effects of public lands and found a relationship between access to wild lands and an uptick in the job market, employment rate and per capita income—all fuel many communities in New Mexico could use. Those jobs haven't come just in the tourism industry, but in companies drawn to the quality-of-life benefits those areas offer employees.
States could make money on the initial sale of those lands for extractive activities, like oil and gas, says Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics, but oil and gas prices would have to be higher. As far as states maintaining them, if the costs of fire fighting are figured in, he says, "it just doesn't make sense at all."
In 2000, when the Baca Ranch in New Mexico went up for sale, Congress rolled out an alternative management plan that called for a management trust running the Valles Caldera's resources in a way that monetized what they could—cattle ranching, recreation, timber—without eradicating the area's scenic value or wildlife diversity. The trust was initially responsible for wildfire fighting costs, but that obligation was transferred back to US Forest Service. Shortly after that, fires burned 53,000 acres and cost $56 million to suppress.
In response to inconsistent funding, the need for infrastructure improvements and concerns that the required self-sufficiency was unattainable, Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation to move the caldera to National Park Service management in 2013. It passed in 2014.
The Clinton campaign has issued a policy paper calling for doubling the outdoor recreation industry over the next 10 years, listing the goals of increasing access to public lands, launching an initiative to revitalize city parks, and dedicating a portion of Small Business Administration loans to entrepreneurs in the outdoor industry. It also clearly states her opposition to disposing of or selling off public lands.
Whether Trump gets on board with his party's stated platform still looks 50/50, Boian says. He's previously opposed it, then in a recent speech said the idea was worth considering.
"The outdoor economy is an important way that we create economic benefit from public land—there's that oft-quoted $1 in every park creates $10 for local communities—but these places aren't just money-makers. They're also part of the fabric of what it means to be an American. They're a real gold mine both culturally and economically," says Lown-Hecht. "There's definitely a lot of really compelling policy arguments for why we should keep public land public, but I think another thing the [outdoor] industry doesn't always look at right away is that these places are our heritage as a country. We own them collectively. You own them. I own them. Why would you give that up?"