Public Lands: Our Collective Birthright is in Jeopardy

I have some questions and complaints about how our federal public lands are managed. I think ranchers pay a pittance in grazing fees, while doing a lot of damage to our collective lands. The timber industry is exploiting fear about wildfire to justify accelerated logging of national forests. The oil and gas industry doesn’t pay anywhere the real value of the Petro-carbons they remove in the lease fees they are required to pay, and miners get to remove minerals worth millions after paying a minimal fee sometimes as little as $5.00 an acre.

These activities damage our public heritage in uncounted ways, but while these industries get subsidies, the public gets stuck with the bills for restoring, repairing and living with the environmental damage.

I also have a lot of positive things to say about our federals lands. Despite my reservations expressed above, most federal lands are better managed than similar state or private lands. They are one of the few places where ecosystem value can and are sometimes considered in management actions. They are the last stand for many endangered species, and they represent a tremendous asset to the American people.

But perhaps the best thing about federal lands is that I, along with the rest of American citizens, own them. And as a part owner, I have a right to voice my objections and my support for federal actions.

That is why it is particularly disturbing to me, and many other Americans that we might lose our public lands. The potential transfer or sale of federal lands to the state or even private entities poses a long-term threat to our democracy and our way of life.

While I don’t always agree with the management of federal agencies like the Forest Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service or National Park Service, I am glad that I have the opportunity and right to disagree, because these federal lands are part of my birthright as an American.

Public lands are one of the great equalizers in our society. Rich or poor. Urban or rural. We all benefit from our national patrimony.

In short, I see any attempts to reduce federal ownership of our lands as an attack on our Democratic values.

Two recent legislative events significantly jeopardize our common heritage.


First the U.S. House of Representatives altered a rule that required any land transfers budget neutral.  All western Republicans including Montana’s Representative. Ryan Zinke, who may soon be the Secretary of Interior, voted for the rule change.


His support for this rule change raises apprehension in some folks that he may waiver on his assertion that he fully supports keeping federal public lands public.  Given Zinke’s recent approval by a Senate Committee and likely confirmation by the full Senate to be Secretary of Interior, it is critical that Zinke oppose all efforts to disenfranchise the public of our collective inheritance.


The implications of this rule change are that the value to the public of these lands is no longer going to be considered. If, say a parcel of BLM lands has oil and gas under it or perhaps is critical watershed value to a community, and potentially worth millions to the taxpayer or have high ecological values, such a value cannot be considered in the transfer, making it easier to depose of the parcel.


The second piece of the puzzle to divest Americans of their birthright was recently introduced by Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, one of the most ardent opponents of federal land management. Chaffetz’s legislation would instruct the Department of Interior to sell 3.3 million acres of primarily BLM lands in several western states.

To give one some sense of how much land we are discussing, 3.3 million acres is larger than the state of Connecticut and about half the size of Vermont. And this could be just the beginning of our losses. The legislation includes 110,000 acres in Idaho, 94,000 acres in Montana, and a whopping 694,000 acres in Wyoming,

The basic list was created in 1997 when the BLM was told to identify federal lands for potential sale that were no longer of “value” to the public.

In that original document the BLM put in a disclaimer to demonstrate that the list was problematic. The BLM said: “Please note many lands identified appear to have conflicts which may preclude them from being considered for disposal or exchange,” wrote then Assistant Secretary Bonnie Cohen. “Conflicts include high disposal costs, critical natural or cultural resources and habitat, mineral claims and leases, and hazardous conditions.”

Specifically, areas likely to be sold off includes 63,000 acres in Campbell County by Gillette, Wyoming, 122,000 acres in Crook County near Devil’s Tower, 35,000 acres in the Powder River Basin near Sheridan, Wyoming, another 27,000 acres along the Shoshone River near Cody, Wyoming. In Idaho, some 10,000 acres in Blaine County in the Wood River Valley, another 11,000 acres in Twin Falls County near Twin Falls, Idaho, another 30,000 acres in Carter County, near Ekalaka, Montana, 45,000 acres in Custer County, near Miles City, Montana and so on.

In some of these places, particularly in eastern Montana and eastern Wyoming, public lands are far less prevalent than in other parts of the respective states, and these federal parcels are critical to public enjoyment and access. For a full list of potential lands on the chopping block:

This attack on our American birthright must be vigorously defended or we may wake up and find that our access to land has been traded away, and hawked to the highest bidder—which is not going to be the average American.







  1. Randy Peterson Avatar
    Randy Peterson

    Needs to be on the front page of every newspaper in US every 2 weeks. The choir already understands.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    During this Administration and Congress there is going to be every attempt to make our public lands completely subservient to ranchers wherever they choose to graze. Rules and regulations will never be enforced, and I think they will be allowed to push us around on our public property if we are out on it and they don’t like the way we look.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    George, This is a very useful document, and I am glad you put in your article with a link. It would be really helpful if there was a map of these parcels of land.

    By the way, there is a good article on this scheme in the Men’s Journal.

  4. Nancy Avatar

    From another blog:

    “Following is a list of Republican Senators and Congressional members that have come out with statements this weekend in opposition to Trump’s immigration order. I understand that these are probably people you strongly disagree with on many major issues but, you need to call their offices and tell them you are a Democrat and that you support their opposition to the immigration order. The more phone calls they get in support, the more likely they are to continue their opposition not only on this ***but in other areas.”

    Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.): 202-225-6411
    Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.): 202-225-3831
    Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA): 202-225-5816
    Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY): 202-225-4611
    Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA): 202-225-4276
    Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL): 202-225-3931
    Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL): 202-225-2778
    Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA): 202-225-5136
    Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.): (202) 224-4224
    Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME): (202) 224-2523
    Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.): (202) 224-4521
    Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz): (202) 224-2235
    Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC): (202) 224-5972
    Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) (202) 224-3353
    Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) (202) 224-5251
    Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN): (202) 224-3344
    Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN): (202) 224-4944

  5. Kathleen Avatar

    “GOP lawmaker withdraws bill to sell federal land”

    Excerpt: “A Republican lawmaker is rescinding his bill to sell off millions of acres of federally owned land.

    “Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) announced late Wednesday night on Instagram that he would pull the legislation after backlash from conservation and sportsmen’s groups.”

  6. Jeff N. Avatar
    Jeff N.

    I’m certain this withdrawal has everything to do with the backlash from Sportsmen groups and was zero percent influenced by backlash from conservation groups.

    After all, Utah does host the International Sportsmen’s Expo.

    I do realize that the two groups (conservation and Sportsmen) aren’t mutually exclusive but I think you get my point.

    1. Jeff N. Avatar
      Jeff N.

      Good news regardless.

  7. Kyle Avatar

    Outstanding George and yes this scheme to “dispose” of the public domain is a threat to democracy and undermines what little legitimacy exists among some individuals and processes in government.

    The measures you refer to were not discussed openly or honestly, and no public support exists for either of these changes, or the larger concept of “disposal.” The whole thing is cowardly and disingenuous. The language used is also telling.

    Even though Chaffetz withdrew the parcel sale bill, you can bet he’ll slip it into a defense appropriation or omnibus bill in the budget. This too is cowardly and anti-democratic.

    Thus far it seems the long term maintenance of the public domain (not necessarily the management) is going to rest on vigilant oversight, networking with millions who love the public domain, and a willingness to swamp the swamp with messages of disdain. Litigation too may be a critical tool and several groups are geared up for it. Also connecting with our state reps to let them know our interests since they are playing a role in this process as well. In CO, I see no support whatsoever in the legislature. We need to keep it that way.

    Thanks George/Ralph for creating and maintaining this important forum so we can stay on top of these issues!

  8. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Ryan Zinke is supposed to be confirmed on Tues.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner