On the 26th March 2015, the United States’ senate voted to pass SA 838, a budget amendment that constitutes the first step in allowing the transfer of certain types of federal land into the stewardship of individual states and paving the way for the sale of these lands to private concerns.

I first heard about this recent development during my last visit to Alaska, where a friend of mine intimated that the sale of National Parks to the highest bidder was an imminent possibility.

‘Say it ain’t so,’ I thought. The very notion of the idea seemed too ridiculous, fiscally irresponsible and morally corrupt to contain even the slightest modicum of truth.

Subsequently, I began to research the topic, the realities of which are not strictly in keeping with current popular understanding. Today, I hope to dispel some of the abounding myths while also highlighting the urgency of the cause.

Public land in the United States is composed of several designations. The ways in which these differ vary by the official bodies that govern and maintain these areas and the protections afforded them by law. National Parks, Monuments and Preserves lie at the zenith of protection, where regulations prohibit grazing, mining, forestry, hunting and other forms of exploitation.

On the other hand, we have National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, National Wilderness and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land which are all subject to exploitation through mining, forestry, grazing, hunting, camping, off-road vehicle and general recreational use, the scale of which varies widely depending on unique regulations for each specific area. These are the types of lands which are currently at risk by the approval of SA 838.

The amendment, proposed by Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski, garnered 51 “yeas” against 49 “nays”. This occurred despite the fact that the amendment enjoys very little support by the constituents represented by such a vote.

For what reasons would the US senate vote to remove federal protection on public land in favour of state control and eventual privatisation? One can only speculate as to the internal motivations that provided the catalyst to such a proposal, though the reality of an Alaskan senator providing the genesis for such an amendment may be telling.

Federal lands in the USA.

A map showing all federal lands and Indian reservations in the US. Map: National Atlas (click to enlarge).

The sale or lease of public lands represents a demonstrable economic gain to be made from ostensibly unused land, especially in a state such as Alaska, which happens to be rich in space and resources such as oil and gold.

A cursory glance at the map of federal land in Alaska and the western half of the continental United States reveals huge swaths of land that are protected under current law. Administration of these lands is not without cost and therefore the sale of these lands to private concerns represents an immediate economic boon. This type of rationale, however, reeks of short-sightedness and unsustainability.

Land is a finite resource, the sale of which is little more than a band-aid solution in response to current fiscal dramas. One can draw parallels from a myriad of examples, both domestic and international, in which native landholders parted with sizeable tracts of traditionally occupied land in the interest of monetary compensation. These people soon learned, much to their detriment and eternal torment, that money is transient, but land is forever.

Under the current amendment, National Parks, Monuments and Preserves would retain their protected status, though the remainder of public land would be up for grabs. While Alaska stands a lot to gain from the immediate sale of public lands, it remains in the shadow of many other states dominated by federal ownership.

Nevada leads the charge here, with a staggering 76 per cent of the state held by the National Forest Service and BLM. If you think that means little in terms of implications for the future use of the sun-burned Mojave, think again. A person only needs to climb one of the immaculate sandstone walls in Red Rock Canyon to catch a glimpse of an open-cut mine dominating the landscape of a nearby hillside.

Offering public lands to the grasp of privatisation allows for these treasured areas to be plundered and ultimately destroyed without impunity.

And here, I believe, lies the crux of the argument against the sale of public lands. Resource exploitation is a finite enterprise, whereas conservation of wilderness areas can be applied in order to promote, sustain and increase outdoor recreation and adventure tourism which are experiencing exponential growth.

Appropriately managed, this growth will continue into the foreseeable future. Such growth is, of course, not without its problems also, but represents both the ethical and economic high ground. BLM land alone provides a significant revenue stream, not only for federal coffers but state-level and Native American benefit as well, generating some $6.2 billion annually.

Let me be clear in stating that, as yet, this amendment is not law. In order to become a reality several subsequent steps must be achieved, but SA 838 forms the first of these measures. It highlights a mentality subscribed to by many an overwhelming majority of world governments, including ours here in Australia, in which wilderness areas are accorded less import than budgetary constraints.

As outdoorspeople, you and I have a vested interest in protecting public land. While the balance of power lies with the American voter, we of an international persuasion should also be concerned.

Many Australians journey to the United States to enjoy its beautiful wilderness areas, from Yosemite to Zion and beyond. What’s more, this issue has parallels with developments in the Australian political climate, as ably described by Dr Oisín Sweeney in his earlier Wild article, A future for native forests means leisure not logging.

I hardly feel that I need to elucidate further on the importance of wilderness areas in a world where they are being diminished at an unprecedented rate. Please take some of your time to sign The Wilderness Society’s “Keep America’s public lands in public hands” petition.

It seems like a small measure, but it’s certainly worth the effort. We all stand to lose something vital and irreplaceable should this amendment become a reality.