It’s my land — yours too!
Not long ago, I spent a week exploring my land. Each day I’d drive around in my truck, stopping now and then to go on a hike or wet my fly in an inviting stream. Then for two days I put my food, clothes, tent, sleeping bag, and gear in my backpack and just walked away from my rig to explore some of the backcountry land of mine. I got up in the morning when I wanted. The same with sleep. I didn’t know where I’d spend the night. Best of all, it didn’t matter.
Why am I telling this? Am I one of the fabulously rich exploring a new recreational property purchase? Am I some cattle baron with a 100,000 acre spread? Perhaps I’m bragging about what I own but you can just wish for? The extent of my land is immense. Its size is over 500 million acres, but it’s not just my land. It’s yours too. You see, I’m talking about the public land of the United States, property of the American taxpayer and managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service, our hired help.
Folk singer Woody Guthrie had it right, when, back in the 1930s, he wrote, “This land is your land; this land is my land . . .”
Even if I were some multi-billionaire, a Koch Brother perhaps, or a Wilks Brother, who recently bought a big chunk in Idaho, I couldn’t buy 500 million acres, and happily I don’t have to. We all own and can enjoy here in Idaho the White Cloud Mountains, Hells Canyon, and the Sawtooths. The Big Horn Crags, the Selway and the Lochsa, Borah Peak, Caribou National Forest, and the awesome expanse of the BLM backcountry on the Big Desert and the Owyhee Canyonlands. This is just a “for instance” — a short list.
It’s not just Idaho. We have equal access and ownership of many places in other states like Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. In Wyoming, for example, there is Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, and much more: The Salt River range, Wyoming range; Absaroka range, the Wind River range, the Bighorn mountains, and the vast Red Desert of the Continental Divide Basin. Don’t forget the Bitterroots, the Beartooths, the Bob Marshall and Glacier National Park in Montana. In Utah, where I mostly grew up, there’s the vast red rock canyonlands, the high Uintas, Wasatch Mountains, and Bear River range east of Logan. Little known outside Utah there are five high (forested) plateaus in the central part of the state, and then there’s the vast “West Desert.” They are free to you and me. If I am standing on top of Mt. Elbert in Colorado it is just as pleasant to contemplate as atop Mt. Borah a hundred miles north of Pocatello.
“No trespassing” signs are forbidden on all these lands except some under military use.
Whether you drive an old Ford Ranger pickup or a new F-150, we share equal access to camp, travel, and just sit and stare at the thunderclouds building over an Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico or Montana mountain range, fronted by a nearly empty valley. I mean empty of subdivisions, roads, factories. I don’t mean empty of wildlife, scenery, and challenges for the human spirit.
The trouble is we have some people who want to steal our land. Some are learned professors whose university chairs are paid for by oil companies, ideologists, and special interest groups who covet our public lands. “Auction it off,” they write. “Public land is not efficient.” And it’s true, my week wasn’t an exercise in efficiency. But I did think up this essay while climbing a nameless public mountain and watching the sun rise. Open country is good for thought.
These scholars say the public lands are a “commons.” In their bought-and-paid-for essays they say that a commons will be destroyed unless it is sold, divided up into lots, fenced-off, built upon and the lands and waters there subdued and depleted.
Some people complain about restrictions. “Why can’t I keep 70 fish if I caught them, even if it was by pouring Clorox in the stream?” Some think that since they bought a toy tank they ought to be able to go on maneuvers all over the mountain meadows, or “Why can’t I run my cows until only dirt is left?”
They confuse our lands with a vacant lot.
Still others say they’re not really public lands at all. Instead “they’re grazing lands.” “Get the public off the cattle lands!” read one bumper sticker I saw. For years, they have called themselves “sagebrush rebels.” I stand with those who love our national treasure of public land — “sagebrush patriots” — that’s a word we should use.
Idaho’s Rep. Raul Labrador, Utah’s congressmen Rob Bishop, Jason Cheffetz, and Chris Stewart, plus Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, think we common people just have too much land. If we want to roam, why should we not have to pay some landowner an access fee? I guess we just don’t respect our betters.
Sixty-three percent of Idaho belongs to all of us. The state of Idaho owns another 2 percent, but according to livestock politicians these state lands are not to be thought of as public lands. About 30 percent of Montana is the public’s land. California has 46 percent, and in Utah it is 65 percent. To me perhaps the best place of all is Nevada which is 80 percent U.S. public land. All of the Western states are at least 25 percent U.S. public land. The Eastern, Midwestern, and Southern states have percentages of public land down in the single digits. The sorriest is Iowa with 0.3 per cent.
These congressional self-appointed “sons of the prairie” claim to be fighting on our side when they say the Western states are unconstitutionally unequal to the public land sparse states of the rest of the country. It’s unfair they say. I agree with them, but in the opposite direction. It is unfair that Eastern, Southern and Midwestern Americans have so little public land. I suppose these “Defenders of the West,” who are disproportionately from Utah, think we need to walk in smaller circles here and not color outside the lines.
While these Utah congressionals are hoping that the courts will somehow find public land itself to be unconstitutional after 150 or so years, Cheffetz recently introduced a bill to sell to the highest bidder 3.3-million acres of public land in the Western states. That is 5,400 square miles, about the size of the state of Hawaii. Where are these lands? They won’t say, but there is an acreage breakdown available by state. We in Idaho would lose 110,000 acres. Wyoming, Nevada, and New Mexico would be the biggest losers as about 750,000 acres each. Cheffetz says these lands are unneeded.
Folks, they’re fixing to steal our land and our freedom along with it. It’s our public land that makes the West the freest part of America. It’s time to defend our heritage of the BLM lands, the national forests, parks, monuments, and national wildlife refuges for solitude, science, scenery, hunting, fishing, hiking, off-roading and high adventure for sturdy Americans — men and women who are not easy to cow. And, oh yes, for cattle, timber, and mines too. That is, so long as they obey our rules and treat our lands like they are our guests, because that is what they are.
Meantime, get in your vehicle, grab your pack, saddle your horse, and continue to enjoy your land.
I should note that just as I finished this column, Rep. Cheffetz unexpectedly withdrew his public land sale bill. He seemed chastened. He released a photo of himself in camo holding his hunting hound while standing near some sub-alpine fir.
Under the photo, “I am withdrawing HR 621. I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands.”
Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with Jackie Johnson Maughan. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.