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GOP Should Reclaim Its Conservation Roots

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With Peter Metcalf

Theodore Roosevelt, one of our all-time great presidents, famously embodied the "conserve" in "conservative." He set aside some of our country's most beloved public lands, including the Grand Canyon, Muir Woods and Chaco Canyon, and created the National Forest and National Wildlife Refuge systems.

The hundreds of millions of acres that belong to all Americans are critical to fish, wildlife, watersheds and the economic powerhouse of outdoor recreation, which produces $646 billion in economic benefit annually and supports 6.1 million jobs. In the tradition of Roosevelt, Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling convened hunters, anglers and other conservationists in a kind of "big-tent" gathering -- the first North American Wildlife Conference -- and created the forerunner to the National Wildlife Federation in 1936.

Roosevelt and Darling were among the first in a long line of Republican conservationists to conserve irreplaceable natural treasures and lands that have shaped the American identity and help drive the economy. Unfortunately, some GOP leaders seem eager to dismantle our heritage of public lands, which are open to all Americans and are managed for multiple uses.

At its winter meeting, the Republican National Committee approved a resolution endorsing proposals to turn our public lands over to Western states that want them. And some states are lining up to claim the lands, despite recognized constitutional prohibitions against such land grabs. Utah, for example, has given the federal government until the end of this year to transfer nearly 20 million acres or be sued.

Members of Congress have sponsored bills that would mandate increased logging and drilling on public lands regardless of environmental and economic harm and force federal agencies to sell arbitrary percentages of public lands. In March, the House passed legislation that would undermine any president's ability to use the Antiquities Act, which has been used to preserve such significant historic and natural sites as the Statue of Liberty and Arches and Bryce national monuments, later upgraded to national parks. Because of these extreme proposals, organizations and businesses, including Black Diamond, are joining forces with the National Wildlife Federation to urge the Republican National Committee to honor an important American legacy by rescinding its misguided resolution on public lands.

The RNC is clearly on the wrong side of this issue. Surveys show it. Economic reports show it. Public sentiment shows it. The 2014 Conservation in the West Poll, a bipartisan survey by Colorado College, found that nearly two-thirds of the voters in the Rocky Mountain region consider themselves conservationists and 91 agree that public lands are an essential part of their state's economy.

Figures on the economic benefits of public lands back up the survey's findings. The Outdoor Industry Association reports that in addition to the annual $646 billion contribution to the economy, outdoor recreation generates nearly $40 billion in annual federal tax revenue and roughly the same in state and local tax revenue. Hunters and anglers spend at least $90 billion a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The total spent on all wildlife-related activity, including wildlife watching and photography, was nearly $145 billion in 2011, or the equivalent of one percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

Business and gateway communities took big hits during last fall's government shutdown and closure of national parks and other public sites. An Interior Department report estimated a loss of $414 million in visitor spending compared to a three-year average. Businesses also recognize the value of public lands and the lifestyle they offer in terms of attracting top employees and deciding where to locate, as a 2012 survey by the Small Business Majority demonstrated.

We call on the Republican National Committee to embrace the party's conservation roots and support the public lands that provide so much and that help our western communities to thrive and make this country the greatest on earth.

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