In April of this year, President Trump issued an executive order, instructing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review any national monument created since 1996, with the aim of rolling back protections on some of our nation's most treasured public lands. A memo from Zinke was leaked to the Washington Post, detailing the results of the Interior Secretary's review and his recommendation to President Trump that four of our nation's monuments be significantly reduced in size. If the president acts on Zinke's recommendations, it would leave hundreds of thousands of acres of public land vulnerable to private interests, and lift restrictions on ecologically destructive development like mining, logging, and drilling.
The White House has refused to confirm or deny the content of the leaked memo, stating via spokesperson Kelly Love, "The Trump Administration does not comment on leaked documents, especially internal drafts which are still under review by the President and relevant agencies." But as the Trump administration scrambles to deal with fallout from the leaked memo, conservationists and activists around the country are already gearing up for a fight.
So, what can you do to help? VICE Impact spoke with representatives from Outdoor Alliance, one of the nation's leading non-profits devoted to protecting our public lands, about why these landscapes are so important to our nation, how the Trump administration has placed them under threat, and what the average citizen can do to take action.
VICE Impact: Why are public lands so valuable to the American people?
Louis Geltman, Policy Director of Outdoor Alliance: These places unquestionably have intrinsic value. They have ecological value in terms of being habitats for wildlife, providing clean air, clean water, and things everyone depends on.
Adam Cramer, Executive Director of Outdoor Alliance: But these places also have a social value: most climbing areas, mountain biking trails, whitewater runs, they're on public land—especially in the West. That's where our adventures are. So it has social value, but there's also tremendous economic value in that as well.
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The Outdoor Industry Association has done economic studies on a national and state level, and there's hundreds of billions of dollars of economic activity because of recreation that takes place on public land.
In addition to this, public lands are also a defining feature of what it means to be American. It's truly unlike any other place. We've got huge swaths of the landscape that are beyond anybody's individual ownership — they are a collective resource. And no matter who you are, or how long your family's been here, you're entitled to them. They're part of our national identity, and one of the handful of things that unite all Americans.
How has the Trump administration ramped up the momentum to roll back protections of our public lands?
AC: The executive order demanding Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review national monuments is an appalling, audacious initiative to revisit federal public land designations, with the aim of rolling back protections.
LG: For people who care about public lands, that's a non-starter. There's no level of tinkering with these protections that's acceptable. If Trump takes action on these recommendations then that's something that will be decided in the courts.
And at that point, there will be a determination as to whether the path that they're talking about pursuing is actually legal. If there's some type of executive action that changes the borders or the nature of public monuments, there are quite a number of public land stakeholders that are prepared to take it up in the courts.
I n Trump's executive order, he talks about a desire to "return the control of public lands to the people." Is that a misleading phrase?
LG: That phrasing is not accurate. They never belonged to the states. All the land in the West initially belonged to the federal government and some of it was given to the states when the western territories first became states. But the rest of it, the national forests, national parks—giving that stuff to the states wouldn't be "giving it back," it would be giving it to them for the first time.
The Trump administration makes it seem desirable to have public lands "managed by the states." But as soon as public lands move from national ownership to state ownership, the public loses a lot of the rights that we have right now in terms of having a voice in how these places get managed.
That shift from national ownership to state ownership would be a huge step towards privatization and a loss of these places that are really important for conservation and for the recreation that we all enjoy.
When public land is given to a state, how can it become vulnerable to destructive forces?
LG: There are a few aspects to this issue. The first is that right now, public land is concentrated primarily in the West, but the entire country pays the management costs for those public lands, which can be substantial, especially for things like fire suppression.
So, if the state of Oregon, for example, were to take over all the public lands of Oregon, and suddenly had to support the management cost for these lands all on their own, there would be an immediate and severe financial pressure to generate revenue from those places. That would mean massively ramped-up extractive industry, or user fees for outdoor recreation, or sale of some of those lands to private interests, or some combination of all of those things.
Proponents of turning over public lands to the states see the state legislatures as more easily manipulated, and an easier place to do business politically and get their way. There's a lot less public process, there's a lot fewer opportunities for things like environmental review. They're looking for a way to circumvent laws and regulations that ensure environmental protection and balance among competing uses of public lands.
What can the average person who is passionate about protecting public land do?
AC: Let your elected representatives know how you feel. Contact your governor, your Congressperson, your Senators. Articulate that this issue is important, and share your perspectives through social media. Vote for officials that support public lands.
One thing that we've done at Outdoor Alliance is put a petition together called "Protect our Public Lands." We've got sixty-thousand signatures from people all across the country that articulate their sentiments toward public lands and the need to keep it public. And being counted on that petition is a way to learn more about the issue and also to stand up and be heard.
LG: I would also encourage people who have some affinity for any outdoor recreation activities to join a member organization, whether it's American Whitewater, International Mountain Bicycling Association, Access Fund or another. There are people out there in this space, giving people opportunities to be involved and make a difference.