Public Lands: We Can't Cash Out. We Must Lean In.

For OIA's local recreation policy manager, the public land heist is personal...and professional.

By Cailin O'Brien-Feeney April 12, 2016

When I go outsideor, more often when I’m scheming and daydreaming about getting outthe narrative relies on vivid sensory details of the environment and the experience. I relish where and what and with whom. “Let’s go for a hike in the foothills after work. I bet the wildflowers are popping,” I might say to a coworker. A recent text to some trusted ski partners read: “Ski tour this weekend? Let’s go farther into that basin, past the lake we went to during the last storm. Bigger trips forge memories of backcountry hot springs, red rock river canyons, big vistas up above the trees, shared time with family and bonds with friends old and new.   

Rarely do I say,Hey, you know that trailhead on state land, where we cross that local conservation easement, and then it turns into federal forest? Let’s head there.” Why not? Because it’s not as compelling as a description filled with sensory details like popping wildflowers. More important, I wouldn’t expect even my most outdoorsy friends to know a place by its land designations—only to know that it is by virtue of it being public that we’re able to access that land freely. The ability to enjoy time in nature, whether close to home or amidst iconic American landscapes, is something I treasure, and that’s why as I work daily to ensure proper management, funding and access on public land. 

Local, state and national public lands are woven together in a way that welcomes a diverse group of people and offers a diversity of experiences. The very existence of public lands is similarly woven into my identity as an American. We share a responsibility and a voice in how public lands are managed precisely because we are shareholders. The biggest fallacy being peddled by the state land transfer movement is that it “gives the land back to the people. We the people already own public land. 

State trust lands, though, are not public land; they have varying access restrictions and are often mandated to generate revenue. This is a worthy mission, as trust lands most often benefit public K-12 education as well as state hospitals, universities, veterans homes and more. However, this is not a blueprint for how all lands should be managed. Recreation, hunting and fishing are sometimes allowed on state trust land, as long as those activities do not interfere with the land’s constitutional mandate to make money. Other places on public land prioritize recreation, wildlife and habitat and only allow development that does not interfere with those purposes. 

That’s the system we have now in which all things have a place, but not all things are appropriate in all places. We have local parks and open spaceessentially a big backyard for alland other parts of our communities where residential or commercial use is the priority. We have state parks you can enjoy with your kids and state trust lands that help fund their schools. We have national parks “America’s best idea, wilderness where nature, itself, reigns supreme, and forests and rangelands that support energy development, forest products and some of most amazing recreation experiences in the nation. Proponents of the public land heist want to cash out and ditch that system all together. I agree with proponents of the public land heist that management is imperfect. I disagree with their proposed solution to hand ownership and management over to individual states.  

So what’s the alternative? Do better. Don’t cash out: Lean in.   

A good start is to adequately fund the Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service and local and state agencies that manage our public lands so they can do a better job for us. That means better collaboration at the local level, maintenance of trails and recreation facilities, capacity for the environmental and permitting work needed for all manner of projects from thinning overgrown forest to reducing wildfire risk; from responsible energy development to the conservation of fish and wildlife habitat. This work is already being done across the West, so let’s support that movement, not give up and cash out. 

We should celebrate our public lands and the vibrant outdoor recreation economy and millions of jobs they support. These lands belong to you and me and Americans not yet born. Let’s keep it that way.  Please join Outdoor Industry Association, hundreds of our members and thousands of Americans telling our elected officials to #KeepItPublic. Sign the petition: