Uniting the Human-Powered Outdoor Community to Stop the Public Lands Heist

A Side Conversation with Tania Lown-Hecht of Outdoor Alliance

By Editor Brett Rawson

Maybe you’re the type to backpack for days on end. There you are, 50 feet from your bear can, with no light switch in sight, surrounded by the sound of jubilant coyotes and the smell of your unshowered self. Or maybe you prefer the comfort of a chalet that overlooks rolling hills, or the idea of glamping in a furnished yurt that faces the edge of sunsets. Or maybe you just like the ability to carve through some fresh powder on a Saturday morning. However often, for whatever length, and in whatever style you spend your days or nights in Mother Nature’s house, do we not all have one thing in common — awe, and respect, for her beauty?

This isn’t to paint a picture of Mother Nature as one that is “far away.” Even living in New York City, a place people are quick to call the concrete jungle, you are a $15 train ticket away from a solitary hike, or a 20-minute drive from miles bluffs that overlook the torso of the Hudson River. But what if you drove out to your favorite hike to find the gate closed? And not just one, but all of them? This possibility is coming ever-closer to a reality: Last week, a bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of land (H.R. 621) was reintroduced in Congress. Luckily, it was withdrawn, but that’s only because people like Tania Lown-Hecht of Outdoor Alliance exist. She and a coalition of people around the country sent over 5,000 letters to Congress in such a short period of time that the bill buckled under the weight of opposition. That was great news, but then this week, we received an Action Alert from Outdoor Alliance: Congress is set to vote on a new bill —  H.J. Res. 44 in the House, and S.J. Res. 15 in the Senate — that proposes to roll back the public process on 245 million acres of land.

This threat is not new — the privatization of public lands, or the “public lands heist” as it’s known — but today, we face a heightened threat. So we sat down with Tania, Communications Director at Outdoor Alliance, to talk about what issues they are currently facing, what the road beyond the bend looks like, and how we, and you, can join in these efforts to protect our National Parks, state parks, and the land we live on.

THE SEVENTH WAVE: When we initially talked in December, we spoke in hypotheticals — the Secretary of the Interior hadn’t been selected and we had no idea what a Trump presidency would actually look like. But now, a few weeks in, things are becoming pretty clear: The new administration’s approach seems to be act quickly and in every direction. So I’m curious: What is passing in front of your window? What’s the current conversation, and concern, at Outdoor Alliance and other environmental organizations?

TANIA LOWN-HECHT: So first, some good news. In the maelstrom of legislation and changes in DC, there are also a few pieces of positive news. Last week, we got word that Rep. Chaffetz was pulling a bill — H.R. 621 — that proposed selling off 3.3 million acres of public land in the west after massive public outcry. It’s just one bill but it’s a very promising sign that when enough people — and enough of the right people — speak out, legislators are forced to listen. In the next few weeks, Trump’s pick for Interior Department — Rep. Ryan Zinke, from Montana — will probably have been confirmed. We think he is a solid choice. He’s from the west, and has a pretty good record on public lands. Plus he was forceful in his confirmation hearings about keeping public lands in public hands. He also acknowledged the existence of climate change! That’s about as good as we could hope for, and very different from the tenor of things at say, the Department of Education.

The big concern at my organization and similar organizations is what Congress will do. For the last few years, there have been these bat-shit ideas about selling off our public lands, but most of that was coming from remote western counties or western state legislatures, which don’t have any legal authority over federal lands. But Congress does. And the House has shown no mercy in its first few weeks back in session. They immediately passed a rules package that ensured all transfer legislation would be considered budget neutral, and have already introduced a solid handful of horrible-sounding bills.

Our big anxiety is that the president may no longer be a backstop to these bad ideas the way Obama was, even if Trump has been supportive of public lands in the past.

TSW: Right, and H.R. 621, as well as other similar bills, are all a part of what’s being called “the public land heist,” right? How long has this heist been going on for? When did it start and who is involved?

TLH: Well, it’s a resurgence of the Sagebrush Rebellion from the 60’s that was more about anti-government sentiment than anything else. The folks behind this resurgence, which we’re calling the public land heist, are a couple of special interest groups mainly funded by the Koch brothers and by some oil and gas interests who are also motivated by strong anti-government sentiment. And even though these ideas are deeply unpopular with Americans, they have captured the attention of some important members of Congress. These anti-parks legislators want to see our public lands turned over to state governments so that they can be privately developed, mined, extracted, or turned into private real estate or just sold off. It’s a terrible idea that just won’t die but it’s gained a lot of traction in the last few years.

One of the main groups funding this legislation is called the American Lands Council. They’re a small special interest group that peddles model legislation around to county commissioners. There’s little those folks can do but with enough pushing, their ideas have reached Congress, and Congress is the only body with the real power to transfer, sell off, or otherwise dispose of federally owned, public land. And as you know, the makeup of Congress and of the executive body looks a lot different today than it did a few months ago.

TSW: So where does Outdoor Alliance, and your role within that organization, fit into this larger picture? What are the main things you guys focus on, and how do you get people to care about those issues?

TLH: Our real focus is on the human-powered outdoor recreation community. We started as a coalition of a bunch of different national recreation advocacy groups that represented climbers, backcountry skiers, mountain bikers, hikers, and paddlers. We decided that combining our voices would give us a lot more traction in Washington, and that’s been very true. A lot of the work we do is advocacy. Most of our advocacy work is on public and federal lands. I would say 80% to 85% of our advocacy work is on federal land. We do some work on state lands also, but they are managed differently.

Each state has different rules for how they manage land in their state, whereas the federal government has rules that govern how we manage land all across the country. We also do a lot of education on tracking legislation, teaching people how to become advocates, and working with lawmakers at different levels to tell them about the outdoor recreation community. Most of this is run-of-the-mill work for a representative group: We have our constituents and we work to make sure their needs are addressed.

Our advocacy work falls into three big buckets. One, we help protect important places. That could mean getting a better designation for a certain place. There are three main types of public land governed by the government: National Parks, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. And all of those different types of land are managed a little differently. National Parks are extremely well-protected. National Forests and BLM land are typically managed for multiple uses, which means they don’t exist just for environmental or social use. Those agencies were created to reflect these multiple uses. For example, the Forest Service originally focused mostly on timber and extraction, but its purpose has changed quite a bit over the years. We work to make sure that if there is a really awesome landscape that is still open to extraction, it gets a stronger designation, which means it becomes a national monument or a wilderness area, or some combination, where there’s less extraction, less development, and less risk and threat to the landscape.

The second bucket is policy work. We respond to bills. We like some bills, we don’t like other bills. We want to see the outdoor economy measured by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, we want new designations, we want to improve wildfire funding, we want to make sure there’s enough focus on trails, stuff like that.

The third bucket is empowering people to get involved, to understand the politics a little bit more, and understand how they can make a difference. We help translate. Policy is really complicated and hard to follow. I work with a team of policy experts from every one of our member groups and there are issues where even this group of experts can’t explain what is happening. I’ll ask, what was the vote on this and do you know what happened here and what does this mean? And sometimes even they have no idea. So a lot of our work collectively is research since policy can be really complex. This “empowering people” bucket is my bucket. My work is translating the difficult policy into edible morsels where people can understand it, get excited by it, and maybe want to do more.

On the website we built, www.protectourpublicland.org, which is the Public Land Campaign, we used a bunch of word clouds about specific places that are threatened in each of the western states that have introduced legislation to take away public land. I wanted to arrest people with the personal. I think it’s a very compelling way to move people to action when you’re looking at big, national problems. They’ve done some polling that shows that even if people have never visited a national park but they know them, they will want them to exist because maybe their kids will have the opportunity to visit them someday.

TSW: One thing that strikes me about the work you do, in general, is that we can literally see what’s at stake here: the wildness and wilderness around us. Living in the “the age of the image,” we are visual learners, especially when it comes to consuming news and information. I’ve noticed a lot of your material is just that: visually stimulating. Tell me a little bit about that.

TLH: People are very visual and information moves really quickly these days, and so the power of visual imagery is even more important than it’s ever been. Being able to express something in an image people see in a split second is what’s going to get them to slow down.

And that, in some way, is why public land advocacy is much easier than other advocacy. We have very tangible images of what we see and can lose. When you’re doing international news or healthcare policy, there are fewer arresting images or tangible outcomes of what you’re working on.

In order to make people feel empowered, you want to present the threat, make it personal, but then give them a way to take action and do something about it. If you just say climate change is super overwhelming and we’re all going to die, tides are rising, there are going to be super storms, wildfires and tornados, people don’t know how to respond to that. They just shut down.

TSW: Or they go watch Sharknado.

TLH: [laughs] Exactly. I just think it’s so important to give people something to do that matters and can make a difference. We have worked to figure out small ways that people can engage on smaller issues that do make a difference. The withdrawal of H.R. 621 is a great example of what can happen when enough people make a fuss. We had almost 5,000 people sending letters and calling and it makes a real difference. It matters.

To fight the panic and paralysis that is totally normal with these huge overwhelming issues, you need to make it bite-sized. Instead of calling your reps and telling them to care about climate change, you tell them, here’s one bill and one action that’s out there right now that can make a difference in this community.

TSW: It reminds me of what we witnessed with the election. It’s easy to be an active observer because there are so many windows to look through. While participation can feel a lot further away, it’s actually so close by. What is one thing, right now, that you are encouraging people to do?

TLH: The one thing that we’re encouraging people to do right now is sign the petition: www.protectourpublicland.org since we use that as a jumping-off point to track the legislation and share it with a much broader audience. You are basically joining an army of people committed to taking action to protect public lands.

TSW: When we last spoke, we talked about what a best-case and worst-case scenario looked like. Has that changed at all?

TLH: The best-case scenario over the near future is we’re working with agencies to protect public lands instead of with Congress or with the president because it looks like they are less likely to enact greater protections. Obama has protected more public lands than any other president. He’s been very active in protecting lands, and Congress has actually been OK in the last four to eight years about designating new wilderness and passing legislation to protect places.

Going forward, we aren’t counting on Congress to do that. They’re going to have different priorities, and they have already taken action to threaten public lands. I think the best thing to focus on is what agencies like the Forest Service, the BLM, and the Park Service can do to oversee public resources. Right now, we’re working with them to protect good policies that currently exist and try to stop bad ones and make sure we’re running on public lands as smoothly as possible.

The worst-case scenario looks pretty bad. It means that the most extreme ideas about public lands in government have prevailed, the idea that we should not have public lands at all. Those don’t have much friction left. There’s no sure veto on that anymore. I’m not sure what that looks like in practice. It’s probably not having all National Parks suddenly turned over to the states, but I think it might look like National Forests turned over for energy extraction, or an amendment to important legislation like the Wilderness Act. It could mean that instead of protecting places for people and the outdoors, we’re looking at more extraction.

TSW: Would that be like passing the event horizon of a black hole — if all lands went to the states? It’d make your work infinitely harder, given you’d have to then keep up with legislation from 50 separate states, right?

TLH: Yes. Infinitely harder. States don’t have the resources to manage all these public lands. In part this is because states have to balance their budgets and they only have their own taxpayers to do that. Right now all Americans collectively own and contribute about $5 a year in taxes to public lands. We also all benefit from any all drilling or development on public lands — it all goes back to that budget.

The public land heist is an existential threat to the existence of those places. States would not be able to financially support them and would have to sell places off, and then you lose access to them if you don’t own them anymore. And that can happen relatively quickly.

TSW: So we’re keeping a close eye on it —

TLH: Absolutely.

TSW: Relatedly, I’m curious about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline. It raises incredibly physical, as well as philosophical, questions about ownership of land, reneging on treaties, and who gets to make these decisions about who owns what land, and who belongs where. I’m curious, how does this impact or interact with your issues?

TLH: The irony about the whole public lands heist movement is that the people behind it are saying you have to return the land to the states. Well, the states never owned them. They historically never owned them. When the west was incorporated into the United States, the government took responsibility for managing the mountainous regions and places that weren’t initially suitable for agriculture and where people wanted to live. And if we’re talking about giving back land to anyone, we’re not giving it back to the states, we should give it back to tribes.

As far as who gets to decide, the thing about public land is it’s owned by the public and managed on our behalf by the government. The public has certain rights when it comes to land, like you have access to it, a say in the public process, outlets to voice your concerns to agencies, representatives, to the president, and that’s not true for state land. Citizens in any given state don’t own state land. They don’t have a right to what happens to it. They don’t have a say. There’s no guaranteed public process and if you don’t live in that state, you have no right to say anything about it. So for you living in New York, you could say something about public lands in Washington, unless it got sold to the states. Then you’d have no claim over it.

TSW: I’m curious about another boundary — the line between recreation and preservation. Are there ever issues between these two camps?

TLH: Our take on that has always been we need good data, and that people who love the outdoors are always willing to stay off closed trails, or stay out of wetlands. Or not climb somewhere because falcons are nesting. If you love a place, you are always willing to not go there in order to protect it.

I think in general the environmental community has made too much hay about recreation causing damage and not focused enough on how important people’s experiences on public lands are to building the next generation of conservationists. Our focus has always been on sustainable recreation and recreation that protects landscape. But I also think that access is important because getting people to love the outdoors is the first step to them being willing to take action to protect it.

TSW: Right, to see what we’re protecting.

TLH: Exactly.

TSW: So what’s one of the next things on your agenda, whether it’s this week or further ahead?

TLH: We’ve been working with Senator Wyden from Oregon on this bill called Recreation Not Red Tape Act, which is really cool. It’s done a bunch of things to help make outdoor access easier. One of the things we worked really hard on is a new organic designation. There are a number of land designations that work as blueprints for how agencies take care of a place. National Parks are one, Wilderness areas are another. This designation, called the National Recreation Area, would add another tool to the toolkit. It would be recreation focused. So it would protect the space for its recreation value, so it would be protected from development, but it would be less restrictive than wilderness, which is no motorized vehicles, no transport, you can’t even use wheelbarrows in the wilderness. We want something more in the middle. So we would be psyched if that happens.

TSW: Would that be the first of its kind?

TLH: Yes.

TSW: That’s huge. That could be transferable then, right?

TLH: Yeah, it would turn into law and that would help Congress to protect landscapes for the recreation value. There are currently National Recreation Areas, but there’s no set management rules for them. So this would create a set recipe: If this is a National Recreation Area, here’s how you take care of it. And it would exist forever, like National Parks, and you would be able to use it to protect really important spaces that maybe don’t fit the criteria of a national park or wilderness area.

TSW: Any final words?

TLH: Put your members of Congress on speed dial!



Tania Lown-Hecht is the Communications Director at Outdoor Alliance. Explore everything their site has to offer here, but to sign up for the petition to fight the Public Lands Heist, go here — http://www.protectourpublicland.org.