The end of access? An inside look at the implications of privatizing our national forests.

In the mounting battle to keep public lands in public hands, certain voices have been louder than others. Here's an interview with a Forest Service Program Manager on her perspective on the public land heist.
Katherine Hollis Katherine Hollis
February 05, 2016
The end of access? An inside look at the implications of privatizing our national forests.
by Tania Lown-Hecht, Outdoor Alliance Communications Director

In the mounting battle to keep public lands in public hands, certain voices have been louder than others.

Private interests, including those heavily backed by oil and gas - have been vocal that our public lands should be privatized, allowing those groups to sidestep environmental regulations to allow for increased mining, timber, and real estate development. Tens of thousands of Americans who love public lands have also spoken out against the effort to seize and sell off our parks, forests, and open spaces, seeking continued protection of the wild places to enjoy. Often forgotten in this fight, however, are the thousands of public servants who have dedicated their lives to caring for these places and ensuring balance in how we care for our millions of acres of American public lands.

To get this unique perspective, we spoke with Linda Merigliano, the Recreation, Wilderness, and Trails Program Manager for the Bridger Teton National Forest in Jackson, Wyoming, about the recent efforts to privatize America’s public lands (note: she spoke to us not in her official capacity at the Forest Service, but as a citizen). Read on for her thoughts on the public land heist, what makes National Forests different, and the relationship between locals and DC. 

Tell us about your background and how you got involved in public lands.

I grew up going camping with my family. We used to go to the ocean on the coast of Maine and Cape Cod and spend hours catching bullfrogs and looking in tidal pools. I remember seeing people grabbing starfish from the ocean and leaving them on the beach to die, and I felt that wasn’t right. So from an early age I wanted to be part of conserving the land and encouraging responsible use. I started as a volunteer for the Forest Service in 1979, then worked seasonally as a backcountry ranger on the west slope of the Tetons. In 1991, I came to Bridger Teton. In Wyoming, public lands are really a part of the lifestyle. People feel a strong connection with public lands and they are very engaged in caring for them.

What’s important about our National Forests?

In Teddy Roosevelt’s era, there were corporate monopolies and out of that grew a sense that the broader public good was being overpowered. This sentiment created a public lands system that is the envy of the world now. These lands are a symbol of American democracy and part of our culture of independence and freedom. The National Forest is the largest provider of water, which ultimately is the most limited resource on our planet. If water isn’t protected and kept in a clean condition, we will face huge costs to provide clean drinking water in many places. National Forests are unique because they are very closely tied to communities. Many smaller communities (like Jackson) are driven by investment income, which means people are bringing their wealth with them, and they’re moving to take advantage of opportunities on public lands. In Wyoming, recreation is a huge part of the economy, and people don’t realize how many jobs depend on that.

How is the Forest Service different from the Park Service or a private landowner?

The United States Forest Service (USFS) is different in that we have a multiple use mission. Many more activities are allowed on the National Forest and we strive to manage outdoor recreation, range, timber, water, and wildlife in the combination that sustains the land. Our mission is caring for the land and serving people to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the Forests for present and future generations. We strive to manage for the greater public interest, and that means putting the collective will of the people over any one particular interest. We try to figure out what Pinchot called “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.”

As someone who has been involved in land management for decades, can you tell us about what could happen for access and for local economies if American public lands were turned over to states?

Enjoying the fall colors at Soda Creek.

A national system has the ability to spread the costs out over a much bigger area. The states have to balance their budgets, but they will still need people to manage these lands, and that depends on having the financial resources to do the job. States are going to have no choice but to figure out how to raise the needed funding, which will mean selling off some of the lands to raise the money, or substantially increasing fees. On national land, grazing fees are 1.69 and state fees are more than $11.  On national land, recreation use fees are mostly nonexistent and states would have that charge more fees for recreation use. Camping is generally not allowed on state lands. The exception is state parks, but some states have had to close their parks or raise the fees significantly because of budget woes at the state level. Fundamentally, the choice is between national lands open for public access for a variety of different uses, or a much smaller estate of state lands with much higher fees to access the land that remains.

One of the criticisms of federal management is that it is a bunch of bureaucrats in distant Washington DC making decisions that affect locals. Does that ring true to you in your work?

The Forest Service works under laws passed by Congress, as representatives of the people. We work under Congress’s legislative direction, but what happens on an individual national forest is largely dependent on outcomes derived through the public environmental process. Although the process is open to all Americans, the vast majority of input typically comes from local people. The Washington office establishes policy and administrative procedures but provides discretion for decisions about the appropriate mix of uses at the local level. I take my role as a public servant seriously. I spend a lot of time facilitating dialogue among different people’s interests. The public process takes time and can be clunky, and the public is rarely  talking with one unified voice. If you watch decisions on an individual National Forest play out, you will see that local input makes a difference. The Forest Service employees are  part of these communities. The district rangers and forest supervisors making the decisions are locals, too. 

Do folks at USFS feel like they have to respond to the threat of state seizure?

Most of us who work for the National Forest do it for a love of public lands and we take our roles as public servants seriously. It’s hard to watch when there are a lot of falsehoods and misperceptions said about what we do. We fully recognize that we could be doing better, but we are very short-staffed so we have to do the best with the people and resources we have. If our public land was turned over to states, there would still be millions of dollars in maintenance backlogs for facilities, roads and trails. The State would be in just as difficult a position to find the funds needed to address the challenge of managing for all the public interests and would likely be forced to sell land or substantially raise fees to balance their budget. In addition, one costly wildfire could likely overwhelm the entire State budget.

Where do we go from here?

We need to be more creative—people don’t want more burden on the federal budget, so there has to be a broader conversation about the importance of  public lands.  The public will always have mixed opinions but we need to think about why communities value public lands and find funding mechanisms that will support taking care of these special places. We need more advocates for the National Forests rather than advocates for only one interest. People think this threat isn’t real, but it is. If we can have a much bigger conversation about why public lands matter, we can generate a groundswell of support to figure out how to take care of them and ensure continued access to the outdoors, not just for us but for future generations. Ultimately that’s what it’s about.

This blog has been posted here with permission from the Outdoor Alliance. It originally appeared as a post on their website.