American Fly Fishing

By Toner Mitchell

Public lands make America great. Our public land—forests, grassland, desert, national parks and monuments, historic and wildlife preserves—is what separates us from the rest of the modern world, where hunting and fishing are practiced only by royalty. We anglers owe a debt of gratitude to men like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot for envisioning our long-term interest in conserving our natural resources. We owe them for asserting that an abundant and healthy commons—sustainable grass, saw timber, minerals, clean water supplies, wildlife, and fish—is fundamental to our strength as a nation.
   Unfortunately, in legislatures throughout the West, bills are being introduced that would transfer America’s public lands to the states. In 2012, Utah passed legislation that gave the United States until December 31, 2014, to surrender 31 million acres of largely national forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. Perhaps in recognition of its responsibility to the nation as a whole over a minority of people from one state (65 percent of Utahans believe public lands belong to everyone in the country), the United States has yet to hand over the goods. This development has not deterred legislatures in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico from introducing transfer bills of their own, in spite of polls showing that 71 percent of Western voters want their public lands to remain public.
   This contravention of public will is but one reason that land transfer is a bad idea. Another is expense. An independent study of Utah’s transfer project determined that the state might indeed manage public lands profitably, but only if it were able to collect a higher percentage of oil and gas royalties than the feds currently do, and if petroleum prices remain at peak levels. Given the certainty of fluctuating oil prices, Utah would need to auction off land to make up for a shortfall. One catastrophic wildfire might cause Utah to sell land or raise taxes to comply with its balanced-budget mandate.
   To transfer advocates, the imperfections of the BLM and the Forest Service are the prime complaint, one that should be taken seriously. Many seeking land transfers are of a philosophical lineage that hates the very concept of public land (e.g., the Sagebrush Rebels of the 1970s and ’80s), who have been choking agency funding and obstructing progressive reforms for decades. So, while agency failures may have been a problem, there have been many in power—on Capitol Hill, in statehouses, and on county commissions—to whom these failures have also been an objective.
   Without their traditional whipping boys, who will states blame when they must live within the budgets they have imposed on the lands management? More terrifying, how will fishing make out when short-term revenue generation trumps the sustainable economies provided by fishing and other pastimes?
   Your favorite stream might get a gas well drilled beside it. Worse yet, it might be sold to the highest bidder and locked up. More anglers crowd onto ever-dwindling waters, until they start losing interest. Then your favorite campground closes for lack of maintenance funds, and another campground and another stretch of stream. Out-of-state anglers don’t book flights anymore, stay in hotels, and buy licenses. You never thought you’d miss them until your guide buddy leaves town in search of gainful work, along with the kids and his wife whose café went belly up. Out-of-staters used to dream of buying homes in your state; they wanted to open offices there because their workforces would love the clean lifestyle.
   Less competition on your pet stream is certainly not a bad thing, but if outdoor pursuits become less of a priority—likely, given a state’s need to generate quick revenue at the expense of more stable recreation economies—the quality of your experience will decline.
   The U.S. outdoor recreation economy generates approximately $650 billion annually in consumer spending, of which about $98 billion come from sportfishing. That’s 6.1 million jobs, and $80 billion in federal, state, and local taxes. This economy and our blissful participation in it while fishing a secret public lunker hole would be at serious risk if transfer zealots get their way.
   In this case, it’s far easier to not make a mess than to clean it up afterward. Contact Trout Unlimited, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, National Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, or Center for Western Priorities for more information on this critical issue. Better yet, contact your state legislators and warn them to keep their hands off what isn’t theirs to take away.


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