OPINION: Use of public lands incurs a responsibility to protect them

A group of hikers protesting a large drill near a public park
(Selena Lopez • The Student Life)

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska faces mass oil drilling threatening the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd and Gwich’in human rights. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota faces unacceptable pollution from copper mining at its headwaters. The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah faces both oil and gas drilling as well as uranium mining, putting 100,000 cultural and archeological sites in the crosshairs. 

U.S. public lands are under attack. Extractive industries across the country are targeting federally protected lands for profit. Everyone who recreates on public lands has a responsibility to protect them. 

This can be accomplished via supporting organizations and companies that work to conserve public lands, making use of public comment periods when new land is up for sale and participating in wildland philanthropy if it is within one’s financial means. 

This fall, I lived on public land in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. Bears Ears was protected in the final days of the Obama administration under the Antiquities Act; then the protected area was promptly slashed by 85 percent in the opening days of the Trump administration. This was part of the largest federal land reduction in U.S. history.  

Bears Ears was not alone. The Trump administration attempted to strip protections from nearly 35 million acres of public land. In response, the Biden administration has promised to hit pause on new oil and gas leasing and conserve 30 percent of America’s land and ocean by 2030. 

Public lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies. The majority of public lands are in the Western United States. 

Within discourse about public lands, it is also important to acknowledge how these lands ended up in public ownership in the first place. The United States government displaced many Tribes from their land. Compare this map of Indigenous lands with the map of public lands above.

Because public lands are a public good, and therefore not excludable, there is an incentive to free-ride. A free-rider is anyone who uses these lands without participating in their protection. 

If people who recreate on public lands do not participate in their protection, there will be insufficient opposition to extractive industries. The number of intact ecosystems in our country will dwindle and our kids will not be able to run, hike, ski or do any activity that we take for granted on public lands. 

Where incentives are lacking, we all need to step in to fill the void.

Public lands conservation also offers a defense against climate change through a host of ecosystem services. They provide our clean air and water, provide space for renewable energy development, trap atmospheric carbon dioxide in carbon sinks and their protection keeps remaining fossil fuels in the ground. 

While living in Bears Ears, I developed a profound appreciation for this uniquely American experiment in public lands. Something about eating Thanksgiving dinner under the stars, spending my 21st birthday around the fire and finding purpose rock climbing with my newfound community amongst the towering sandstone cliffs made it hard to believe we could give up these riches for profit.

Throughout that time I was a free-rider; I woke up to the desert sun every day, but I wasn’t aware of the extensive threat to public lands or what I could do to defend my temporary home. After concluding that experience, I have now looked into solutions to protect public land for individuals that use them. Here are some of the things I’ve found.

First, if you or someone you know has the means to participate in wildland philanthropy, this is the most effective form of altruism for public lands. This TED Talk discusses how Kristine and Doug Tompkins, former executives in the outdoor industry, established 14.7 million acres of national parks in South America by deploying their private wealth. 

Second, support organizations such as the coalition members of Outdoor Alliance. You can also find conservation groups near you using this searchable database developed by Patagonia Action Works.

Third, when you buy items to participate in activities on public land, give those dollars to the companies that take a stand for public land conservation.  

Fourth, make use of public comment periods. Federal agencies are required by law to give a public comment period prior to new land sales. The sale of public land is one issue for which voicing dissent can change the course of events. Use this website to find proposed rules and notices open for public comment.

Now, get out there and enjoy public lands. And remember, we all have a responsibility to protect them if we use them.

Kyle Greenspan PZ ’23 is from Portland, Oregon. He is pursuing a career at the intersection of environmental sustainability and global development.

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