In the final months of his presidency, President Obama used his executive authority to place millions of acres of western lands “off limits” to development — and big-government environmentalists cheered the move.
Certainly the protections put in place by declaring large swaths of western lands “protected” is a policy result that pleases the ecologically concerned — but before they get too pleased with big government, they should consider what the precedent means.
After all, will these same cheerleaders for federal land-grabs be as enthusiastic about executive power if President Trump’s new administration decides to allow oil and gas exploration on millions of acres throughout the west? What if the new administration puts large portions of federal land off-limits to wind and solar developers?
All too often, the political outcomes of certain policies seem to earn more scrutiny — and praise — than the process by which such policies were implemented.
Among the pundits and politicians, conversations over federal lands seem to focus on whether or not such land should be protected — and while this is certainly a debate worth having, it misses the underlying issue regarding federal lands:
“Should the federal government be in control of this land in the first place?”
Protecting the environment, and reducing the federal government’s control over western lands, are not two mutually exclusive concepts.
After all, do environmentalists trust Trump to make “appropriate” decisions about land development? Not likely. (Just as capitalists, industrialists and federalists didn’t trust Obama to put the concerns of local communities ahead of the environmental lobby.)
In states like Nevada — where over 80 percent of land is controlled by the federal government — the debate isn’t as academic or obscure as it is to the East Coast elites who, for well over a century, have nevertheless disproportionately shaped public land policy. That’s a major reason locals concerned about their local lands are not eager to see such control surrendered to distant political interests — regardless of who’s in charge in the White House.
A major misconception afflicts many members of the public on this issue — that if the federal government were to return control of these lands to the states, a sudden, destructive wave of “development” would ensue.
Certainly, in some areas, oil and gas exploration, mining operations, solar and wind development and even urban sprawl might follow.
But the vast landscapes of the American West would not suddenly be paved over, drilled dry or mined empty simply because the federal government relinquished its control.
After all, federal bureaucracies don’t own the patent on land conservation — as their well-documented mismanagement has shown. It’s the communities that call the West their home that best respect the value of the region’s natural beauty.
Indeed, it is often these landscapes that bring people to the West in the first place.
Local communities truly care about their own backyard — which is precisely why locals, not DC bureaucrats or pandering politicians, should be in charge of the land.
The power-wielding politicians so eager, currently, to decide the future of western lands are often unable to even identify the areas on a map.
This was quite evident when the Obama administration — to its subsequent embarrassment — tweeted out the wrong landscape after creating the Gold Butte National Monument. Certainly, a tweet is not indicative of whether or not such protections for that land was a wise policy — but it did demonstrate just how disconnected from the local community these decision-makers actually were.
Not only does this dynamic disenfranchise the very citizens who call these lands home, but it fosters environmental corruption and cronyism. Rather than local governments dealing straightforwardly with their voters, we have posturing pols abusing an ignorantly drafted and destructive 1906 Antiquities Act.
Currently, access to Western lands — whether for solar companies, mining companies, researchers, environmentalists or other corporations — gets doled out by politicians and bureaucrats to special interests. In states like Nevada, where so much of the land is controlled by federal agencies, this dynamic turns senators into czars over much of the state.
Nevada, like so much of the West, is an absolutely gorgeous place to live. And such beauty deserves both responsible development and robust environmental protections. Balancing these two interests requires a serious and intelligent conversation.
But that conversation should be left to the individuals who live here — not political interests and lobbyists who live in Washington D.C. suburbs.
Michael Schaus is communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.