The Public Lands Heist: What's Happening In 2019

Efforts to transition national public lands to other entities and effectively take the ‘public’ out of public lands, a intentional process known as the Public Lands Heist. The strategies have shifted, but the battle is still ongoing. Learn about what the public land heist looks like now, in 2019.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
August 24, 2019
The Public Lands Heist: What's Happening In 2019
Photo by Chenmin Liu.

We have been talking about the public land heist – an effort to transition national public lands to other entities and effectively take the ‘public’ out of public lands – for a number of years now. While the heist has moved from direct attempts to sell off public lands to focusing on new approaches that devalue these landscapes, the increasing threat is still here: our national public lands are under attack. We updated you on some important pieces of the heist in 2018, and celebrated some of the work being done to stop it. Read on to learn about what the  Public Lands Heist looks like in 2019.

Rolling back public input

Public comment and input processes are key to letting our government know how we feel about our public lands and how they should be managed. From the unprecedented National Monument Review , to the (now reversed) 2017 House rules that devalued public lands, we have spoken out on many attempts to roll back public process in public land management.

Proposed changes to NEPA

Current proposed changes to the US Forest Service’s National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) regulations would severely limit opportunities for public input on Forest Service projects. NEPA requires that new projects be evaluated to determine potential impacts on air and water quality, recreation access, and more.

The changes being proposed by the Forest Service would effectively remove the public process and public notice from Forest Service projects by eliminating scoping on both categorical exclusions and Environmental Assessments.

Additionally, these revisions suggest that older NEPA analyses could be used without doing new ones – a major problem when many prior analyses are 20-30 years old, and don’t consider current outdoor recreation activities or changing landscapes.

Lastly, the NEPA changes would allow the Forest Service to convert illegal trails to authorized trails without any public review or environmental analysis. If these revisions are adopted, lawsuits would be one of the only avenues available for the public to object to major changes on National Forest land – an expensive and onerous situation for all parties involved. 

take action by AUG 26


Underfunding public lands

Public lands, from National Parks and Forests to the Bureau of Land Management, are chronically underfunded. Congress has continually appropriated less resources to these agencies and the programs that support outdoor experiences. When our public lands are underfunded, people have poorer experiences out there. From closed bathrooms to degrading trails, underfunding public lands negatively impacts the outdoor experience. If folks are not as connected to these places, we lose future voices to protect these landscapes.

We support two bills that would help address some of the funding issues facing public lands:

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was permanently reauthorized by Congress in spring 2019, but was not guaranteed any funding, meaning that Congress as to determine its budget each year. A new bill (S.1081/H.R.3195) “would honor the promise of the program and provide crucial funding to create parks, trails, and recreation infrastructure around the country.”

The Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act would provide funding to address the maintenance backlog on National Parks and other public lands. The House bill (H.R.1225) would create a fund for restoring parks and public lands, created from 50% of unallocated revenue from oil, gas, coal, or alternative energy development on public land (up to $1.3 billion every year), for the purposes of deferred maintenance projects. Unfortunately, the current bill does not include funding for maintenance on National Forest land – USFS currently has an estimated $5.5 billion in maintenance needs.

Check out our Legislative Trail Map to learn more about legislation we are working on.

Prioritizing resource extraction

While we recognize the multi-use mandate of many of our national public lands and that resource extraction is a legitimate use of these landscapes, when resource extraction is prioritized wholly over conservation and recreation, we aren’t too happy about it. Our land managers should manage these landscapes with all uses and users – from habitat to climbing areas and trailhead access – as part of management outcomes. However, we are seeing the current administration prioritize resource extraction over other uses time and time again. Check out what the Outdoor Alliance has to say about this. 

Related to this is the trend, many top land management positions, especially in the Department of the Interior (which has jurisdiction over about 75% of national public lands), are not being filled. These key leadership positions are supposed to be appointed by the President and confirmed through the US Senate. This process provides important checks and balances around who is leading our public lands and what will be prioritized for these landscapes. Learn more from the Access Fund.

What it means

All of these trends –  from attacks on bedrock conservation laws like NEPA, prioritizing resource extraction, rolling back public input, and chronically underfunding public lands – are the public lands heist in action. The Mountaineers will continue to track these issues, advocate to protect public lands and our processes to defend these landscapes, and provide you opportunities to tack action to protect public lands.

Main image of a climb to Sahale Glacier by Chenmin Liu.

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Eric Burr
Eric Burr says:
Sep 01, 2019 08:42 AM

As a retired Wilderness and national park ranger I endorse which proposes to expand the more generous NPS funding and resource restoration up to Washington and Harts passes. Better trailhead facilities are needed there.

Elizabeth Anderson
Elizabeth Anderson says:
Nov 01, 2019 02:51 PM

It is very important to be involved in maintaining the quality of our public lands. Under the idea of ensuring they are available for generations to come we need to share our appreciation for public lands. That includes keeping our voice heard in congress. As we use our vote to elect representatives that will respect public lands and their needs we will see this protection maintained. As legislation is in place to regulate use and funds we should protect and update it as needed. Support of public lands can look different in various capacities. However when our representatives are not making our voice heard it is our responsibility to make that known and change something. The government was created to give the everyday citizen a voice. We the people are the government and those in congress should simply be an organized way of listening to and acting upon our voice.