Battling for Public Lands

By Matt Kearns and David Lillard

People who care about public lands know the last few years have been challenging. Advocates have fought off several Congressional attempts to change or kill the Land and Water Conservation Fund, changes in how federal lands are managed, attempts to streamline industrial development — even sell them off or give them to the states. The current political climate makes it clear that this Congressional anti-public lands fervor will become even more intense.

Against this backdrop, President Obama left office without a proclamation for Birthplace of Rivers National Monument. The monument campaign continues with a longer-term horizon. The reality is that advocates for Birthplace of Rivers and the The Monongahela National Forest and federal public lands will need to focus resources on holding onto public lands and their protections.

Consider the first few weeks of the new Congress. On the first day of the session the House of Representatives passed a budget rule that says public lands have no monetary value. Historically, whenever federal lands are sold, an accounting of what taxpayers were giving up was required. The new rule, which passed with the support of all three West Virginia Representatives, says, in effect, public lands are worthless.

Loss of federal ownership could be detrimental to all public land users. Federal lands are managed with mandatory public input and “multiple use” provisions that value clean water and recreation alongside timber and minerals. States often have different priorities.

Western sportsmen have found themselves shut out of state lands following profit minded sell-offs. Because the West Virginia state legislature is prohibited from passing a deficit, selling or developing state land could become a quick fix for our financial woes. And mineral rights have been sold beneath some of our Wildlife Management Areas.

Our federal public lands have already been bought and paid for by the taxpayer. Look no further than our mountains and rivers for examples. The Monongahela National Forest was created from owners willing to sell logged-out property so the government could rehabilitate the land. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has supported over $182 million in purchases, including access along the Gauley and New Rivers and wetlands in Canaan Valley. As the result of foresighted actions like these, every American is now a shareholder in over 620 million acres of public land.

In Week 3 of the new Congressional session, Senator Shelley Moore Capito co-sponsored a bill to take away presidential authority under the Antiquities Act to proclaim national monuments, a conservation tool used by nearly every president over the last 100 years. The bill states that only Congress can establish national monuments, and that they can do so only with the approval of the state legislature and local governments where the proposed monument is located.

Remember, national monuments are created only on existing federal land. Senator Capito’s bill would have Congress abdicate its responsibility for the land that belongs to all Americans. The bill takes authority away not only from the president, but from the Congress as well.

These broadside hits show why we need to have permanent protections for the incredible ecosystem and recreational resources for Birthplace of Rivers, the headwaters of famed Mountain State rivers.

Public lands are at the heart of that economy. Congress commissioned a study to understand the value of outdoor recreation, currently estimated at $646 billion. In The Monongahela National Forest supports 1.3 million visitors that spend approximately $82 million dollars annually. The New River Gorge National River provides another $53 million to the local economy. There is likely even more tangible value in the “ecosystem services” offered by public lands — much of West Virginia’s drinking water originates in the headwaters of the Monongahela National Forest.

The return on our investment in public lands goes far beyond dollars and cents. A rafting trip with friends, a hike with a pet, a day spent hunting and fishing with our children – how can you quantify the value of those experiences and the feelings that linger long after? Or the connectedness and sense of place that public lands offer?  The “Mon” serves as a common denominator among hunters, birders, boaters, fishers, campers, RV towers, bikers, hikers, and climbers. We may enjoy the land in different ways, but every Mountaineer takes pride in our public lands, the most “Wild and Wonderful” part about living in West Virginia.

The Birthplace of Rivers coalition continue to advance the monument initiative. With the understanding that the playing field has shifted. In the meantime the coalition partners will rally their members to for action alerts, letter writing and calls to Congressional offices to raise our voices in protection of our public lands.

The coalition include West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, Sierra Club WV, the Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia Rivers, Trout Unlimited WV, Friends of the Monument in Pocahontas County, and others. We will all need to work together to keep public land in public hands.

In the long run, this also will help us protect special places like Birthplace of Rivers.

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