The Political Battle for America’s Public Land Is Happening Below the Radar

Public land faces serious challenges under the Trump Administration

bureau of land management land
A rider on BLM land in Nevada.Bureau of Land Management

While Donald Trump promised to cherish America's public hunting and fishing land, close observers say policies under his presidency are undermining those lands and even aiding those who would dispose of America's public land altogether.

America has 640 million acres of public lands—national forests, wildlife refuges, national parks and Bureau of Land Management ground—that generations of Americans access for hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor activities, generally for free or low charge.

“It may not be a conspiracy per se, but if I were setting out to undermine public lands, to transfer them to states or privatize them or whatever, I would be doing many of the things that are being done right now,” said Dale Bosworth, who served as chief of the Forest Service under President George W. Bush. “The things that are happening right now make me really uncomfortable for the future of public land.”

There have always been some politicians who have hated the idea of public land. When President Theodore Roosevelt created the national forest system, for example, critics called him a Bolshevik. Today, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, for example, has vowed to transfer public land to states or sell them off.

In 2016, Candidate Trump said he supported public land. During an interview at the SHOT Show he said: "I want to keep the lands great, and you don't know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don't think it's something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land. And we have to be great stewards of this land."

But now President Trump is in in the second half of his term and public lands face enormous challenges. Under his leadership:

  • Agency budgets have been slashed. In my local ranger district where I plan to hunt elk this September, for example, the trail maintenance budget has been devastated. Outfitters and volunteers are left to do work like clearing trails and pulling weeds. Over time, that means less and less access to the land and less active management of problems facing those lands.

  • Agencies face a vacuum of leadership. More than two years into Trump's first term, there is no permanent leader of the US Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Park Service, just "acting" place-holder staffers. It's hard to run an army without generals, and it's hard to run a multi-million-acre land management agency without reliable, experienced professionals at the top.

  • Anti-public land advocates are being appointed to key positions. Most recently, the industry-support lawyer William Perry Pendley was appointed director of the Bureau of Land Management, overseeing public land acreage equal to the areas of Texas and California combined. Pendley is on record opposing public land on principle, but now is in charge of managing them.

  • The Trump Administration is pushing to move the Department of Interior out of Washington D.C. to a small town in rural Colorado. There, agency leaders will be closer to industry lobbyists, who can pack up and move, and further from elected officials in Congress who are supposed to oversee the show.

  • The Trump Administration budgets have consistently zeroed out the Land & Water Conservation Fund, which pays for providing access to public lands, although Congress has restored some of that funding.

All this worries longtime observers like Bosworth.

Agency staff and budgets are a fraction of what they were decades ago. This can set up local land managers for failure. When the public sees those failures, or the agency isn’t meeting public expectations, voters may grow more supportive of schemes to do away with public lands altogether.

America’s public lands are the envy of the world, Bosworth notes, yet too many Americans fail to appreciate what they have and how they contribute to our economy and way of life.

“Public lands are a tremendous gift that we have as a society,” Bosworth said. “We have to embrace it and not let it slip away, because once it is gone, it is not coming back.”