In 2014, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy famously made headlines for his refusal to pay the federal government grazing fees he owed for over two decades. Bundy’s family had farmed the arid Nevada land for generations, and after the federal government moved to lay claim to some of the land Bundy’s flock of cattle grazed on, so as to better protect an endangered species, the states-rights-minded farmer decided the government was overreaching.
Bundy, who reportedly owes more than $1 million in past-due grazing fees, claimed the federal government had no right to take the land—or charge him the fees. Instead, he believed that Nevada state law trumped federal law, and that since his family had been there for generations, it was his to do with what he pleased.
Bundy’s obstinacy ignited a media frenzy across the country, with many conservative groups sticking up for someone they deemed to be a true patriot: just an ordinary American trying to make ends’ meet without the federal government’s interference. Bundy’s refusal to pay the fees ultimately escalated into an armed standoff between the rancher and similar-minded folk and federal agents. Thankfully, no shots were fired—but the situation is yet to be fully resolved (Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently said that Bundy would be “held accountable” for his actions).
Many on the Political Right responded positively to most of his actions. Ever fearful of a federal government that continues to encroach on their lives, these folks believe that the government should be as small as possible, giving up most of its power and restoring it to the states.
To this end, many of right-wing advocacy groups—including some backed by the billionaire Koch brothers—are calling for the federal government to sell of all of the land it owns, putting it in the hands of states and private investors.
Claim: The Federal Government Already Can’t Manage the Land It Has
In June 2015, Reed Watson and Scott Wilson, of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), which is supported by the Koch Brothers, penned an op-ed in the New York Times that pointed out the U.S. National Park system currently has $11.5 billion worth of deferred maintenance projects. Because of this, the two men argue, America should focus on taking care of the land it already has instead of trying to manage additional land that the country would ostensibly have a hard time maintaining.
On the surface, it’s hard to deny that kind of reasoning: If our country can’t afford to maintain gems like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, why should it be meddling with tracts of land like Bundy’s?
Elsewhere, the conversation has eschewed reason entirely. Taking things one step further, Republican presidential candidate recently described the U.S. government as a “bully” for wanting to preside over and protect our shared public lands. It’s no secret that Paul and Bundy are bosom buddies, but it’s still amazing that he could utter something so misguided within earshot of the watchful public.
Meanwhile, Watson and Wilson seem to ignore one simple word their Republican brethren injected into the national consciousness in recent years: sequestration.
Indeed, it’s impossible to deny the fact that the National Parks felt the wrath of sequestration. Once those mandatory budget cuts were announced a few years back, the park service had to figure out how to deal with a sudden $150 million-plus budget cut. Sure, that number might pale in comparison to the above deferred maintenance number, but it’s not exactly like the park service was being overfunded for decades.
After all, it’s not like any politician could get elected saying “I’m going to spend $500 million maintaining old infrastructure!” Instead, they’ll say something like “I’m going to spend $500 million building lots of new and fun things!”
Here’s Why We Need the Federal Government in Our Parks
Back to PERC for a moment: Despite the organization’s nice-sounding name, it’s worth repeating that the group is backed by the Koch brothers, who are notoriously tied to the oil and fossil fuel industries. They’re also famous for vowing to spend close to a billion dollars on their preferred GOP presidential candidates, but that’s another story.
So let’s say the group has its way, and all of a sudden the government starts selling off the land it owns to private groups (How much would Yosemite’s nearly 750,000 acres command on the open market, anyway?) Is it that hard to see a private group then selling off, say, 100,000 acres in Yosemite to a company that extracts fossil fuels? Continuing PERC’s reasoning, the private group could simply say it’s doing so just to get enough money to protect the remaining 650,000 acres.
While government may not be the best at managing things, what the government owns—at least in theory—belongs to all of us. Teddy Roosevelt understood that some things were meant to be enjoyed by everyone—not just the privileged class. As such, he was a major proponent of not only conserving and protecting land, but making sure it was open for all to enjoy.
Anything less has a tendency to see our natural gems turned into little more than licenses to print money. Consider United Yachts’ list of the top boating spots in America: despite their undeniable beauty, forces in the fossil fuel industry have turned several of them into hotspots for oil drilling. We’ve never been better equipped to invest in clean sources of energy, and yet we still insist on turning first to our most fragile natural ecosystems to satisfy our hunger.
If the Republicans get their way and the federal government starts selling off the land it owns, you have to imagine that it’s only a matter of time before an ill-intentioned individual becomes the highest bidder on a property. And once all of those glorious acres are under his or her command, that person may very well decide that the only green they really care about is their own money.
America’s parks belong to all of us. Let’s keep it that way.