Nobles: The trouble around Public Lands

By Brandon Nobles/Brandon is a graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in English and Humanities. He is a current online teacher and is also an active member of the 7th District and Stevens County Democratic Parties
Taking a break from the current comic tragedy that is the 2016 Presidential election, there is another pertinent issue that directly affects this region which should be addressed: Public Land Transfers. Over the last few years, a new battlefield has been brought out in the public light—particularly due to the media coverage of the Bundy stand off and the Malheur Refuge takeover—between what seems to be cattlemen, mining and timber companies on one side, and federal government agencies, environmental lobbies and sportsmen associations on the other. The former argue for the transfer of public lands held by the federal government to either state or local governments, or to private firms to enhance the economic vitality of depressed rural regions. The latter have declared that these lands belong to the American people as a whole and should open for conservation efforts, hunting and angling and recreational use. This tension can even be seen and exemplified by the current match-up for Public Lands Commissioner. It may not seem as though a major issue to some, but digging under the surface, whichever side wins on this policy issue will result in long term and future consequences for Chewelah and Stevens County.

In the summer of 2015, one of the worse wildfire seasons occurred in NE Washington. Lives and property were at stake, as underfunded state agencies tried to stamp-out this inferno until the federal government finally had to step in. Many local leaders and organizations questioned—some almost gleefully—the effectiveness of agencies such as DNR in being able to combat wildfire. It was determined by many citizens and groups that this was another example of bumbling bureaucrats unable to adequately do their jobs. After the fires were fizzled out, these ideas gained momentum as billboards went up calling for the need to graze and log to prevent future fires, while others claimed that wilderness designated public lands had no economic value; this same mantra started to become a frequent utterance at local town halls. The idea was that the government was incapable of properly caring for these lands, either by government corruption, and/or the government was bending to the will of various radical environmental groups devoted to putting the needs of trees and wildlife before jobs and people. The proposed solution to this was either the lands should be directly managed by the local private firms or some lands should be sold off completely.

Here is where things get touchy. Of course most could agree that proper grazing and logging—under the guidance of science and proper forest management—can and should be part of the way the state should administer and oversee lands. Yet, the statement that wilderness runs against everything that is known about recreational and tourist economies. There are thousands who visit and vacation here for the wilderness, including hikers, bicyclists, anglers, hunters, campers, mountain climbers, wildlife and bird enthusiasts and the numerous other recreational tourists that come through our area. By their very visit, no matter the duration, they produce a local stimulus of millions of dollars by filling up at our gas stations, buying gear and supplies at our stores, eating and drinking at our restaurants, reserving spaces at our resorts, campgrounds, and hotels.

What about the small tavern owner who gets a financial bump up every hunting season and during the summer from wilderness and forest tourism, so he can keep his business afloat during the downtime of the winter? What about that waitress at one of our local restaurants who is a single mom, and gets that extra boost in tips from deer hunters right during the holiday season? All of these individuals would be surprised to hear that wilderness has no real economic value. And then there is the BLM agent, or Fish and Wildlife biologist, or Park Ranger, and numerous other government employees (our county’s largest job sector) that bring millions of state and federal dollars into this area. They surely most of all would be surprised to hear wilderness has no economic value.

To another point, based indirectly off the topic of government employees, if the federal government did allow the states to take over federal land, how would that work out logistically? How could our state afford to manage these lands, especially since those same supposedly incompetent and always-in-the-red state agencies would be the ones in charge of millions of new acreage? The solution proposed, especially during the wildfire, was that private firms would manage the lands. However, if you have private firms managing the lands, with an open hostility to wilderness designations, where does that leave all the people mentioned before? It is often claimed that there would be a stable co-existence and cooperative economy, but this same plan in many other states—most recently in Idaho—ended up with no trespassing signs being thrown up, disenfranchising millions of citizens from the very lands they pay taxes to have, to only have them end up often with polluted waterways, and sometimes outright ecological devastation.
And the final piece would be the attempt to sell-off these lands, an action that would have ol’ poor Teddy Roosevelt spinning in his grave. To sell off public lands is to sell off not only our birth right, but to actually to sell off a piece of our culture, of us. Many of these forests and wilderness areas are the last vestiges of “America the beautiful.” They are a last glimpse of what those fur trappers, explorers, and pioneers saw, admired and loved when this nation was being formed. To sell it off in the hopes of a job or a short-term profit is to sell off a final piece of the past, our past, with no turning back. Sometimes, we must come to terms that not everything is for sale, and not everything has a price.

Finally, this is not to demonize or downplay loggers, miners, and ranchers. Of course they have an important and necessary role in our economy, and in addition many of their grievances toward environmental groups and the government are understandable and sometimes justified. But looking at the situation in our community from all angles, we must realize that all job sectors matter, and we cannot risk the shutting down of one for the sake of another. Stevens County is poor and jobs are limited, and the only way to spark this economy back in motion is through cooperation, and making sure all stakeholders have a seat at the table. Statements such as wilderness has no value, mockery and agitating government agencies, and brash actions such as armed resistance against federal authorities or demanding lands be privatized helps no one and in the end we all will lose. Stevens County can and will have a well-functioning future twenty-first century economy and this can be done by keeping public lands public, new ideas and innovations, and making sure no individual sector is ignored and left in want.