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Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 

Upper McCord Falls, Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the importance of wild places in all our lives. Yet the Trump administration is intent on their destruction through unmitigated extractive uses such as oil and gas development, mining, logging and grazing to benefit private industries.

Wild places—most of which, at least in the U.S., are on public lands— safeguard and improve public health in numerous ways. Studies confirm what is intuitive to anyone enjoying a beautiful day in nature: greater contact with the natural world reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as physical manifestations that often accompany these conditions.

Paradoxically, wild places keep us healthy by limiting our exposure to nature’s ills by creating a physical buffer between human populations and the wildlife that can transfer bacteria and viruses. Covid-19 is not the only recent example of a disease existing in the wild prior to jumping to humans—Lyme disease in the U.S. and the Ebola virus in Africa have been traced to human encroachment upon wild places. Lyme disease, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of ticks infected with a particular species of bacterium, was first diagnosed in Connecticut in 1976. Its current prevalence is thought to be the result of the expansion of suburban neighborhoods into formerly wooded areas and an accompanying reduction in predator populations that control the numbers of deer and rodents that normally host the ticks.

More broadly, wild places support greater biodiversity than places where humans have a heavier presence on the land. And biodiversity gives resilience to the natural systems and cycles that make the planet habitable to humans, as healthy, species-rich ecosystems adapt more easily to stressors such as climate change. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s no humanity without biodiversity.

Wild lands are also carbon sinks that capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere–especially forests, though grasslands and deserts store significant amounts of carbon as well. Preservation, and even expansion, of wild places will be crucial in tempering the extent of climate change.

At a time when the need for wild places and public lands is so clear, it’s infuriating and illogical that the Trump Administration is pushing hard for the removal of protections for endangered species, clean air and water, and public participation in land management decisions, all while federal land management agencies are ramping up efforts to drill, mine,graze and cut trees on public lands across the West. In Utah, the Bureau of Land Management is plowing ahead with plans to offer more than 100,000 acres of public lands near Canyonlands and Arches national parks for oil and gas leasing. The Trump administration has proposed reopening public lands on the north rim of the Grand Canyon to uranium mining despite a 2012 moratorium imposed to prevent further poisoning of the landscape. In an effort to push projects through faster and with less public oversight, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service announced they will no longer analyze the environmental or public health impacts of vast categories of extractive uses—including fossil fuels, logging and grazing—that generate corporate profits at the expense of public lands and human health. Capitulation to the extractive industries has also had a disproportionate impact on low income, Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities. Every extractive industry seems to be getting a sweetheart deal, while vulnerable communities, wildlands, wildlife, wild rivers, and public health bear the consequences.

In the recent past, we have seen states and extractive industries pushing for the transfer of public lands into private or state hands that don’t have to comply with all the federal environmental laws that protect the lands, waters, species and neighboring communities. Yet advocates for public lands privatization or “transfer” to the states have been surprisingly silent during the coronavirus pandemic. Maybe they’re self-aware enough to know their perceived grievances won’t register with a country currently grappling with systemic racism, a public health crisis, and economic dislocation.

Or maybe they remember that past efforts to legislate the mass sale or transfer of public lands to states or private industries have been overwhelming failures. In 2012 Utah enacted the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which demanded that the United States “extinguish title to public lands and transfer title to those public lands to the state on or before Dec. 31, 2014.” The federal government has not felt compelled to respond to the absurd demand. Utah later passed a bill to authorize a lawsuit against the U.S. to “take back” those same public lands. It’s amounted to nothing, other than lining some lawyers’ pockets. And in 2017, then-Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), after facing widespread public outcry, was forced to withdraw his bill to sell off millions of acres of public lands across the West.

As a result of these past failures, conservative lawmakers and industry proponents have looked to alternative means to make it easier for extractors and developers to exploit public land resources. That’s largely what we’re seeing now: the effective privatization of public lands by weakening the regulatory safety nets that protect wildlands, waters, species and public health; as well as the removal of public oversight from agency decision-making. It should come as no surprise the Secretary of the Interior was a long-time industry lobbyist who advocated for privatization, reduced public oversight and weakened environmental laws. Or that the person Trump finally nominated for Bureau of Land Management Director is a dyed-in-the-wool racist climate-change-denying sagebrush rebel?

Despite the recent silence, we shouldn’t expect those who’ve clamored for privatization or state control to keep quiet for long. The issue is too central for its proponents, and the pandemic’s aftermath may offer new pretexts for privatization and state control: boosting government revenue and restarting national and local economies.

The arguments that environmental laws are too burdensome and that public lands have been “locked up” by “Washington bureaucrats” for too long are as short-sighted as ever. But with states facing budgets in shambles and unprecedented unemployment, privatization or transfer may appeal even to those who normally see this scheme for the plundering of public resources it is. We cannot afford to let down our guard.

Public lands in public hands means we all share in the benefits public lands provide – clean water, clean air, recreation, physical and mental health, hunting, fishing, birdwatching, biodiversity, protection against disease, protection of historic and cultural resources, and moderation of the impacts of climate change. Just as important, public lands in public hands means we can all participate in planning and making decisions for how public lands are managed for future generations, through laws such as the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

For now, we maintain the right to determine whether public lands protect us from disease, or bring it to our doorstep; help us adapt to climate change, or contribute to the crisis; provide refuge for wildlife, or serve as a feedlot for livestock. We must remain vigilant in our defense of public lands against effective or actual privatization by those who seek to destroy them for private gain. Luckily, Guardians, our supporters and our conservation allies are fighting tooth and nail to keep existing environmental safety nets in place. We will continue to do so, and hope you will continue to join us.

Learn more at www.WildEarthGuardians.org.

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