By Joel Webster
After listening to Steven Rinella’s interview of Congressman Rob Bishop on the Meateater Podcast, we thought it was necessary to respond to some of Rep. Bishop’s claims about America’s public lands.
Bishop is a skilled debater, and if you’re a public-land user who doesn’t pay close attention to the issues, it’s pretty easy to get worked up in support of his statements. He makes value claims that specify the need for public lands to “benefit people,” and he points to largely unspecified restrictions that are “denying access.”
Seems like what we’re all interested in, right? But when you take a closer look, you’ll see that Bishop is really advocating for specific kinds of benefits and access: Benefits to corporations and unfettered access for energy development, mining, and off-road vehicles, above all else.
The following provides more background on the three major issues discussed in the interview, and a point-by-point rebuttal of many of Bishop’s claims.
Land and Water Conservation Fund
Enacted in 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is America’s premier conservation and recreation program. It has helped to conserve parks, forests, shorelines, farms, ranches, refuges, and trails in nearly every state and county in the U.S. The LWCF does not use taxpayer dollars, but instead invests in America’s public lands using a small portion of federal offshore oil and gas drilling fees. It’s the perfect example of a balanced conservation program, because it uses dollars raised through resource extraction and invests them back into our natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities.
- Bishop claimed that the federal side of LWCF serves very little public good and that it should be reformed “to do something useful.” In reality, the federal portion of LWCF continues to be of great need for consolidating the checkerboard of public-private lands and improving sportsmen’s access to inaccessible or landlocked public lands.
- Bishop states that only 12 percent of LWCF dollars currently go to states—this is only a portion of the state grants. For the past decade, LWCF has been split 50/50 between federal and state programs, providing grant funding to the states for outdoor recreation, working forests, sportsmen’s access and fish and wildlife conservation including the Stateside LWCF Program and Forest Legacy Program
- Bishop would like to see the program “repurposed,” such as to pay for deferred maintenance costs and to provide payments to counties. Increasing public access and conserving high-quality wildlife habitat are of utmost importance to sportsmen and women, and LWCF has accomplished both over the past five decades without any additional cost to taxpayers. Raiding this fund for other purposes is a slippery slope. Instead, programs such as Payment in Lieu of Taxes, the Refuge Revenue Fund and the maintenance and federal road accounts for our key federal land management agencies need long-term sustainable funding plans.
- Bishop stated that the land trusts who use the program buy land low and then sell high to the federal government to make a profit and support their lobbying and litigation efforts. The non-profit organizations involved in assisting with LWCF have conservation missions and often work as the “middle-man” to save the government money. The law requires that the government pay fair market value or less for land. This is closely regulated by the IRS and in numerous instances, land trusts have saved the federal government millions of dollars in federal land acquisition funding by tapping into private donations, state funding sources and landowner tax deductions to match the federal LWCF funding needed to acquire high priority projects.
- Far from creating additional costs, consolidating checkerboard public and private lands often creates more efficient management that shrinks costs. After all, better public access means better access to address wildfires, invasive species, and other threats, without managing around private lands.
- If LWCF was significantly altered, we would lose the single most important program for expanding access to public lands.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt and has been used by 16 presidents—eight Democrats and eight Republicans—to protect some of the nation’s best public lands. In recent years, sportsmen and women have advocated for the responsible use of the Antiquities Act to protect some of America’s finest hunting and fishing areas, including Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico, Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, and Berryessa Snow Mountain in California.
- Bishop questioned the legality of creating largescale national monuments, but presidents have been doing so since Theodore Roosevelt created the 800,000-acre Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Largescale monuments created by presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush, and Obama have legal precedent, and challenges to national monuments based on their “size” and the validity of “objects” have been rejected by the courts.
- The congressman criticized President Obama for creating more monuments than other presidents. One reason that several national monuments were created by Obama is because Congress failed to approve legislation that would specify management considerations for public lands. Bishop himself has a big say on what passes through the House Natural Resources Committee. If he is interested in resolving conflict between stakeholder groups, his committee has the authority to advance collaborative public lands bills through the House of Representatives.
- When Bishop suggests that monuments prevent public access, we believe he is referring to restrictions that would deny industry the ability to mine and drill within a monument. Hunting and fishing access will continue if the monument stays with a multiple-use agency, like the BLM or Forest Service.
- Here’s what is restricted in designated areas of national monuments: Road building, energy development, and mining. These restrictions are appropriate in places that deserve to be protected from development.
- It was great to hear Rob Bishop acknowledge that monuments aren’t parks and that BLM and park service monuments are very different. This is true!
- Finally, sportsmen agree that there should be a local process that leads to national monument creation, and we have seen congressmen and senators lead these processes. Bishop’s proposed legislation would create extremely difficult-to-achieve “sign off” language, effectively halting the protection of public lands.
Privatization or Transfer of Public Lands
America’s 640 million acres of public lands – including our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands – provide hunting and fishing opportunities to millions of Americans. They represent the uniquely American values of freedom and adventure that are the envy of the world. This is particularly true in the West, where, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent of sportsmen and women depend on access to public lands for hunting. Without these lands, the traditions of hunting and fishing as we have known them for more than a century would be lost.
- To set the record straight, the state of Utah has sold off 55 percent of its original land holdings, and the state continues to sell land to this day. They started with 7.5 million acres and now have 3.4 million acres.
- The congressman pointed out that the state of Utah doesn’t have a maintenance backlog for state parks like the National Park Service does (the actual Park Service backlog is $11.3 billion). While true, we agree with Steven Rinella’s point that the underfunding of our public lands is a designed-to-fail scenario, where we are asking federal agencies to do a job and not giving them the tools to succeed. Meanwhile, if Utah were to run a deficit while managing public lands, they would either have to raise taxes or sell off public lands.
- Bishop suggested that states have done a better job of “maintaining the land and helping people.” Because state lands are required to be managed for maximum profit, not multiple use, industrial development takes priority over wildlife habitat and public access on state-held lands. In our opinion, helping people means finding the right balance between development and managing lands for wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation where hunting and fishing are the best possible use of those lands. This supports our outdoor traditions and the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy—a huge segment of the U.S. economy that shouldn’t be ignored to favor industry.
- Bishop stated that the Utah Public Lands Initiative legislation would have required that federal public lands transferred to the state of Utah be managed for a “public purpose,” and that the lands would have been required to stay in public ownership. We looked at the bill introduced to Congress, and it includes no such public purpose language and no language restricting the future sale of such lands.
- Finally, it should be noted that the congressman has twice advanced measures in the House of Representatives that are designed to make it easier for the federal government to sell or transfer public lands: Bishop helped change the way that Congress calculates the costs of transferring federal lands to states or other entities, eliminating hurdles from the process. He also asked budgeters to set aside $50 million in the federal budget to account for the costs to transfer federal lands to state governments.
Joel Webster is the Center for Western Lands Director with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a national conservation organization working to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish. The TRCP represents nearly 80,000 members and works collaboratively with 55 formal partners and a large network of regional sportsmen’s groups and businesses to achieve its mission. Because public lands provide access to 36 percent of all American hunters, the responsible use and management of these lands is of utmost importance to the organization.