Montana has a long tradition of listening to and respecting — revering — its writers and the state’s literary tradition. In an unprecedented show of unity, more than forty of Montana’s best writers have gathered, in rapid response fashion, to write original essays and testimonials advocating for the protection of our public lands, and endorsing Democratic House of Representatives candidate Rob Quist’s position on this (literally) most common ground of issues. Please vote on May 25.
Pioneering Idea: Public Lands
The Statue of Liberty stands on a piece of federal land, known as Liberty Island, but “federal” doesn’t mean it belongs to Washington. The National Park Service administers it, but it doesn’t belong to that agency. It belongs to a schoolteacher in Vermont, a coal miner in West Virginia, a waitress in Las Vegas, a tattooist in San Francisco, and to you, and to me, and to every other American citizen.
Liberty Island is public land.
Those facts are worth remembering now amid the post-election clamor about shrinking the federal government and — among other constrictions — its role in land stewardship. Sell off the federal lands, some critics urge, or give them away to the states! Unload, transfer to local control, privatize! The 2016 Republican platform instructs Congress to divest “certain federally controlled public lands” to the states, without specifying which lands.
Public lands under federal management, including not just national monuments but also national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges and other entities, deliver enormous value, of several sorts, to the communal and individual lives of Americans.
We pioneered this idea of protecting landscape for all the people. On March 1, 1872, Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill creating Yellowstone National Park, America’s first and the world’s first such place, “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Those words reflected the wisdom that all citizens have spiritual and recreational needs, as well as economic needs, and that access to open landscape helps feed the hungers of the soul.
Parks are only the most obvious, least controversial form of public lands. Yellowstone Park lies embedded in a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a larger zone of contiguous, wildish landscape, encompassing 10 times as much area as the park itself and including portions of five national forests, three national wildlife refuges, Grand Teton National Park and parcels administered by the Bureau of Land Management — all of that federal — as well as some state and private lands and part of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The park boundaries are unfenced, and wildlife flows back and forth across them.
Take away just the non-park federal lands from that geographical mosaic — which would be a horrendous hit to what Yellowstone is — and you would disrupt migration corridors, reduce winter range and otherwise subtract habitat from the elk, the pronghorns, the mule deer and other creatures that live their lives in and out of the park. You would severely jeopardize the survival of the Yellowstone grizzly bear. Yellowstone Park is big, relative to other national parks, but it’s too small to serve as a solitary ark for the fauna Americans go there to see.
National forests and national grasslands, managed by the United States Forest Service for multiple uses, amount to 193 million acres, mainly in the West. Besides offering timber for extraction and harboring wildlife, those watersheds supply fresh water to 66 million people. Those lands also provide outdoor recreation for hikers, hunters, fishermen, skiers and snowmobilers. (Proponents of divestiture should check with the National Rifle Association and the National Wildlife Federation to be reminded how hunters feel about public lands.) Among the various economic benefits of public lands, outdoor recreation alone contributes $646 billion annually in consumer spending, and 6.1 million jobs. These are the tangibles.
The intangibles are important, too. Teddy Roosevelt, a great Republican president, understood that American landscapes had both tested and nurtured our uniquely American spirit, stubborn as it is, and that any citizen might find joy or solace in a day, or a night, spent outdoors. That’s why he signed the Antiquities Act, in 1906, and used it to designate 15 national monuments, including Devils Tower, Muir Woods and one at the Grand Canyon, which later became a national park.
In the 11 decades since, other presidents and their administrations have designated more than 140 additional national monuments and national historic landmarks, ranging from Admiralty Island in Alaska to Yucca House, a Pueblo archaeological site in Colorado, to Fort Matanzas in Florida. African Burial Ground National Monument preserves a small site, on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan, where 15,000 African people, mostly enslaved, some free, were buried during colonial times. It was protected in 2006, under custodianship of the National Park Service, by declaration of President George W. Bush.
That’s valuable real estate. Should we sell it? Of course not, nor Yellowstone, nor Muir Woods, nor Grand Staircase-Escalante, nor Liberty Island either.
I spoke recently with Will Rogers, the C.E.O. of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization that helps protect great public landscapes and create parks, even small parks, closer to where children live. “Our democracy is bound up in these places,” he told me, then added, “I hope.”
David Quammen is the author, most recently, of Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart. Portions of this essay originally appeared in a New York Times Op Ed.