GUEST OPINION: This Land Is…

By on October 6, 2015

A takeover of federal lands would have disastrous consequences.

What if the land you cherished spending time in as a child falls into the hands of the wrong people? (Photo:Craig Benjamin)

What if the land you cherished spending time in as a child falls into the hands of the wrong people? Photo: Craig Benjamin

Jackson, WY – We knew better. The hiking guidebook bluntly states, “The exit on this trail is a sandy, shadeless, brutal uphill slog and the low elevations here translate into very hot temperatures.” Though temperatures had risen into the 90s the day before, we didn’t care. We were seduced by promises of “dramatic vistas across slickrock landscape surrounding the lower Escalante canyons,” and the excitement of squeezing through the one- to two-foot Crack in the Wall that provides access into the lower reaches of the incomparably beautiful Coyote Gulch.

Slogging our way out in 90-plus degree heat, we began to understand the warnings. The soft sand made every step feel like breaking trail in a foot of heavy, wet snow. Thankfully, a thin layer of wispy clouds tempered the intensity of the searing desert heat, allowing us to return to our truck in one (very sweaty) piece.

This stunningly beautiful hike, and the entire weekend we spent camping and exploring with our families in Southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, was one heck of a way to celebrate National Public Lands Day and our uniquely American way of life.

Our American public lands have shaped my life. I’ll never forget my first backpacking trip at 7 years old with two of my best friends and our dads to the rugged Washington coast in Olympic National Park. Or traipsing through the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest as a kid with my parents searching for morels and chanterelles. And my Dad teaching me how to catch, fillet and cook trout while our family camped on the Little Naches River in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. I’ll bet my kids will never forget the weekend we spent in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And I’ll bet you have similar childhood memories from our public lands that you cherish to this day.

Our American public lands are what drew me to Jackson Hole. In 2001, when trying to decide where I wanted to relocate among dozens of ski towns, visions of slaying deep pow in the acres of endless backcountry in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Grand Teton National Park made my decision easy.

I’d bet access to our public lands played a role in your decision to call Jackson Hole home, too. Whether it is a passion for skiing, kayaking, hiking, climbing, packrafting, trail running, mountain biking, wildlife-watching, hunting, fishing or [insert outdoor activity here], our public lands and the access they provide define our quality of life here in Jackson Hole and across Wyoming.

Our public lands more than just define our quality of life. Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, the National Elk Refuge, the Gros Ventre Wilderness and our National Forest lands and the wildlife these lands nourish lure millions of people to our home every year and (for better or for worse), drive our local economy.

But right now our public lands, and our entire way of life, are under threat.

Across America and right here in Wyoming, powerful special interests are pushing their extreme agenda to privatize our public lands. Big corporations (led by Koch Industries) are funding a well-orchestrated campaign using front groups with deceptive names like the “American Lands Council” and the “Environmental Policy Alliance” aimed at snookering us into transferring our public lands from federal to state (and ultimately, private) control. Despite all of their slick rhetoric and elaborate arguments about “taking back” our land (which Western states never owned), the goal of this campaign is to privatize our public lands so they are open to fossil fuel and mineral extraction.

Here’s the deal — while federal management of our public lands is far from perfect, state management would be a disaster for many reasons. One in particular is that in order to have the money necessary to manage our public lands, the state would have to start leasing out and selling off land immediately, which is exactly what the energy and extraction companies want. This is precisely why the overwhelming majority of people in Wyoming (and across the West) oppose transferring our public lands to state control – we fear losing access to the lands that define our way of life and energy companies running roughshod across our states.

But this is about more than losing access to our favorite ski line or hunting ground. It’s about fulfilling our moral responsibility to create a better world for our children. That means preparing for and tackling climate change now. About half of the unexploited fossil fuel resources in America are on public lands or under federally-controlled waters, and more than 90 percent of those have not (yet) been leased. The science is clear: in order to avoid catastrophic climate change we need to leave the vast majority of our remaining fossil fuel resources in the ground. Fossil fuels on federal lands – our public lands that we as Americans control – are the easiest place to start, as we can simply keep them in the ground.

All of this is why it’s so important that our Teton County Board of Commissioners (unanimous bipartisan vote) and Jackson Town Council (a 4-1 vote, Mayor Sara Flitner voted against the resolution) recently adopted resolutions recognizing the value of our public lands and opposing their transfer to state control. In passing these resolutions, Teton County and the Town of Jackson added their voices to the increasing number of counties, conservation advocates, hunters and anglers and outdoor enthusiasts from across our state working to protect Wyoming’s wildlife, public access to wild places and community character.

But we need to do more than pass resolutions. We need to actively fight back against the big money special interests pushing their extreme agenda to privatize our public lands. As state revenues decline with the downturn in energy prices, expect calls for privatizing our public lands to grow even louder. It’s up to each and every one of us to let our elected representatives know they can take our public lands from our cold dead hands. PJH

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About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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