When it comes to protecting America the beautiful, Republicans and a 10-gallon hat of conservative business interests tend to think they know best. Now, in a fight for control of our purple mountain majesties, they’re trying to prove it.
Nevada congressman Crescent Hardy fired the latest shot on Tuesday, adding an amendment to a must-pass bill to fund the Department of the Interior. The action would prevent President Obama from creating new national monuments—cordoned off from development—across seven Western states. A vote is expected by the end of the week.
But Hardy is just a single soldier in a crackling federal land battle that scholars are already comparing to the Sage Brush Rebellions of 1970s and 1990s. In those range wars, conservatives refused to recognize federal ownership of some 300 million acres across the resource-rich west. They wanted the land transferred back to private or state ownership, or at least opened up to oil, timber, and mineral grabs.
They lost. Courts nullified the legal arguments. Voters punished the politicians. National public opinion polls showed that a majority of Americans support federal land management.
All that still stands and yet the same fight is back again, reportedly funded by the Koch brothers and Exxon-Mobil. More than 40 land-transfer bills have been introduced in Western states this year, according to the watchdog Center for Western Priorities. At the national level, 51 senators backed a land-transfer budget amendment introduced by Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski.
The last congress was the first since World War II to forgo protecting a single additional inch of America. This congress, meanwhile, has not fared much better. In April, a group of Republican congressmen organized the “Federal Land Action Group,” to “return these lands back to their rightful owners.” Translation: the states.
At least two Republican presidential candidates are in the fight, too. Last year, Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz pushed an amendment that would cap federal land ownership, and transfer any excess land to state taxpayers.
The taxpayers would then have the right to pass the land to frackers, loggers, drillers or any other private interest. Given the cost of maintaining the lands, many predicted that outcome.
The bill failed but the ideas live on as Cruz and Rand Paul work to win the Western vote. Paul blasted federal ownership on a campaign stop in Nevada last month, telling the Associated Press: “I think almost all land use issues and animal issues, endangered species issues, ought to be handled at the state level.” On the same swing, the AP reported, Paul met with right wing rancher Cliven Bundy, who told the wire service that he and Paul were “in tune with one another.”
He arguably launched the latest rebellion a little more than a year ago. He refused to pay the fees he had built up over decades of ranching on federal land. The federal government, he argued, has no authority over the land he was using. Dozens of well-armed friends agreed, and celebrated Bundy, at least until he offered a reporter his opinion on “the negro.”
No matter. His ideas about ownership are back again, too. They’re even getting into print. In the months before Crescent Hardy’s amendment this week, The New York Times and newspapers across the west carried op-eds arguing for state or private control of federal land, and an end to new federal lands. All the writers were linked to the oil and gas industry.
These arguments and amendments are costly and time consuming, but there is good news for conservationists: they are unlikely to pass. The White House has already threatened to veto the Hardy-tagged Interior bill if it reaches his desk. And President Obama seems to value the idea of public lands, protected by the government, passed to future generations.
He has already designated or expanded 16 national monuments, and protected more than a million acres of federal land—more than any other president, according to the Wilderness Society.
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“We are thrilled with President Obama’s leadership on conservation,” Dan Hartinger tells msnbc. He’s also worried, however, given the persistence of republican efforts to undermine or repeal the laws that protect federal land.
Many presidents make their largest conservation pushes near the very end of their second term, and, indeed, Obama is on a streak. He’s declared three monuments this year, and suggested additional protections for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Republicans have howled, of course. They call it a land grab by King Barack, a great terrain robbery that ruins local economies. But study after study suggests this isn’t true, says Ryan Bidwell of the Conservation Lands Foundation. Tourism and recreation make public parks and national monuments money trees, not money pits, the best research shows.
But republicans don’t seem to care. The fight is ideological, not economic.
“It’s just crazy,” says Bidwell. “It doesn’t make any sense.”