How Congress Turned on National Parks and Public Lands

Credit: Bill Clark / Roll Call / Getty Images

Not even a decade ago, public lands and National Parks were considered sacrosanct by both parties. Democratic and Republican presidents alike regularly used the Antiquities Act to create new monuments and had, generally, fairly unanimous support from Congress. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which uses profits from offshore drilling as funding for public parks and recreation, was a bipartisan effort that both parties supported. Public land was not considered sacred to all, but untouchable for most.

“Traditionally, Congress has been supportive of our National Parks and public lands in a very bipartisan fashion,” says Jesse Prentice-Dunn of the Center for Western Priorities. “I don't think you actually have to look back that far to a time when Republicans and Democrats could agree on that.”

But since 2010, as think tanks like American Progress have pointed out, Congress has passed exactly zero parks or wilderness bills, instead seeking to defund the LWCF, ease up land transfer rules, and put many public lands up for auction. Last year, the Republican National Committee even went so far as to add transfer of lands from the federal government to the states in its official party platform. The general public still loves public lands — National Parks and public lands have consistently polled very high among voters — but the political viewpoint on them has certainly changed. So what happened?

Many pinpoint the change in Congressional attitude toward federally owned lands to 2010, when the Tea Party disrupted the election cycle and the Citizens United Decision changed the nature of politicking.

“Not only did [the GOP] have more members of their own caucus that would be willing to back them up on these more outrageous proposals, but you also had primaries from the right that pushed people further right,” says Prentice-Dunn.

Anti-park and anti-public land aren't wholly Tea Party ideas, however. These attitudes can be traced back at least to the early 1980s. The Sagebrush rebellion, which took place in the ‘70s and '80s, was the first public demonstration against federally managed lands, when many miners, loggers, and local politicians protested the passing of the Federal Land Policy Management Act and demanded more local control over lands.

“Reagan, at least rhetorically, embraced the Sagebrush rebellion, which was one of the early anti-federal land pushes, and it’s escalated since that time,” says Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “I think it’s been very gradual. The Reagan-era anti-federal government rhetoric was very popular. It was the era of starving the beast. You can shrink and shrink and shrink the federal government to the point where, in the words of Grover Norquist, ‘you could drown it in the bathtub.' "

Defunded parks and distrust of federal management are a natural consequence of such politics. Anti-government attitudes (and anti-parks attitudes) cranked up another notch in the '90s, with Newt Gingrich and the “Republican Revolution.” Alaska Congressman Don Young, the former Chair of the Committee on Resources from 1995 to 2001, has recently sponsored or cosponsored dozens of anti-public lands bills.

“This attitude intensified over time, and I think that the right wing lost a lot of the center in the moderate Republicans,” says Fosburgh. “And they had been a stalwart for environment stuff that included public lands forever.”

Fast-forward to 2010. While the Tea Party wave is the most prominent change to the political landscape (by some estimates, 45 percent of its caucus members are outspoken anti-parks and anti-public lands advocates), behind-the-scenes money lobbying against federally protected lands is also on the rise. The libertarian-minded Koch brothers' money is everywhere; Rob Bishop of Utah, a Tea Party caucus member and now Chair of the Natural Resources, takes over $100,000 in oil and gas donations; Mike Lee, also of Utah, takes over $200,000. Both are strongly opposed to public lands.

The anti-public land lobby doesn’t just stop at politicians, though. For example, a nonprofit group backed by the Koch Brothers network allotted $57,250 to one of long-time corporate lobbyist Richard Berman’s nonprofits. In 2014, one of Berman’s employees, Will Coggin, started writing op-eds in Western newspapers favoring land transfer and accusing groups like the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership — a nonprofit that has historically been populated by conservative members — of being a front group for “environmental extremists.”

“Today there are a lot of people who consider things like funding for the EPA to protect clean water and clean air to be partisan issues,” says Brad Brooks of the Wilderness Society. “If you look at decisions like Citizens United that allows for unlimited money in politics and you look at things like the rise of the Koch brothers’ funding, huge investments of money to fund groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose sole job is to present these issues in a way that makes them partisan issues — it’s sort of a perfect storm of politics and money.”

The storm continues with the Trump administration's proposed budget cuts and loosening of rules for the sell-off of public lands. The only thing really stopping the selling-off of public lands and the rescinding of National Parks has been, well, the public.

Earlier this year, Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz attempted to introduce HR 621, a bill that would effectively sell off 3.3 million acres of federal lands. People — sportsmen, conservationists, and environmentalists — took immediate notice and an outcry ensued. “In six months, Chaffetz goes from introducing a bill, receiving massive blowback, and then immediately resigning from Congress,” says Brooks. “People woke up and realized what it did. They were angry.”

But bills are still being introduced to erode the power of the federal government over public lands or act as handouts to the oil and gas industry. Paul Cook (R-Calif.) recently introduced HR 1399, which reduces the royalty on soda ash, mined in California and Wyoming, from the current 6 percent to just 2 percent. The Congressional Budget Office says it will cost approximately $80 million in lost royalties to taxpayers over five years.*

“The understanding in Congress is that it's unpopular,” says Brooks, “so you have to come up with other ways to accomplish the same end goal. What you are going to see are ways to take control away from the public and give that control to local municipalities, state governments, and any number of ways to undermine the existence of public lands. That could be through funding cuts to the extent that people will become frustrated with their local forest service for failing to maintain basic things like trails. Then they will get angry at the agencies, instead of pointing the finger at Congress, who controls how much money they have.”

“Chaffetz was hit so hard,” says Fosburgh, “so I think we're going to see a much more subtle move on public land, cutting the budgets even more. We're going to see things like changing law enforcement toward public land and giving it to the locals. We're going to see efforts like that, essentially shifting management authority over to the states, and gradually it's just lessening federal authority.”

The end goal, in many cases, is for the federal government to divest itself of land altogether, a radical idea that has taken root in a small but vocal segment of the West. “A lot of that stems from not recognizing the federal government's ability to own land,” says Brooks. “Rejecting the whole arc of American history, and having a fundamentally different read of reality.

“When it comes to Congress,” he continues, “it's the same with almost any issue: It requires people speaking up. It requires folks reaching out, people who they may not have reached out to before. And showing a broad range of support for parks and public lands.”


*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized a bill from Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) HR 2939 as "prohibit[ing] the federal government from exercising federal reserved water rights to protect public lands and Indian water rights." The explicitly bill states that "Nothing in this Act limits or expands any existing reserved water rights of the Federal Government on land administered by the Secretary." Instead, the bill aims to prohibit federal oversight or input on the transfer of private water rights in the U.S., and compels the DOI and DOA to recognize state authority for permitting water use.