06/30/2014 11:09 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

Public Lands on the Auction Block? Let's Skip That July 4th Sale


This year July 4th is a Friday, and like many Americans across the country, I'm planning on celebrating outdoors over the long weekend and thinking about what makes this country great -- and unique. One of those things is the wealth we all share as Americans in owning more than 635 million acres of public lands. My friends and family will be hiking and picnicking on public lands and millions of other Americans will be camping, fishing, canoeing, bird watching, bicycling and otherwise enjoying their public-lands heritage.

The value we as Americans put on owning and accessing our public lands and resources has been well documented in consistent polls and studies. But that hasn't stopped a rush of misguided efforts to take this freedom of recreation and public access away from us. During the past 40 years we have seen the swell of the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion come and go and rural Western politicians are currently riding the latest wave.

The Republican National Committee made disposing of the public lands part of the 2014 party platform and we have seen the public lands targeted by elected officials across the West. Montana Congressman Steve Daines has repeatedly supported selling off the public lands. Other elected officials are using your taxpayer money to fund campaigns to dispose of these lands or hire outside legal help to figure out how to relieve you of your heritage. Officials in Utah are even considering spending taxpayer money to sue the federal government to force the transfer of millions of acres of your public lands to the state.

Who would end up with the lands under these various scenarios? While some proposals are funded by mining and energy interests and the American Lands Council with privatization being the apparent intended outcome, other proposals, like one in Nevada, would transfer the lands to various Western states. Since these are your and my lands, we have the right to question whether the state of Nevada is the appropriate steward. After all, Nevada quickly sold off the millions of acres granted to it at statehood.

You might argue that was a long time ago and surely the states would retain the lands they hold now for their citizens. However, land disposal by states is not a thing of the past, as current proposals in Michigan to sell tens of thousands of acres of state lands show.

While these Sagebrush Rebellion-type proposals can be seen as legitimate discussions of natural resources policy, they are unfortunately often accompanied by anti-government, violent overtones as we recently saw with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. This combination has been so prevalent that I question the ability to separate out these impulses when the boots-on-the-ground supporters clearly do not.

When I was the State Director for the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, I attended a conference where former Secretary of the Interior James Watt spoke. As secretary, Watt was not only sympathetic to the Sagebrush Rebels, he actively worked to dispose of our public lands. He knew his audience did not distinguish between these ideologies and he worked to whip them into a frenzy when he spoke about the Sagebrush Rebellion of the early 1990s. He said they would not win at the ballot box, they would not win in the jury box -- but they always had their box of ammunition to carry the rebellion forward.

We should expect more of our elected and appointed officials; we should expect reasoned discussion and an appreciation of our access to our great American legacy of natural resource wealth. So before you head out to explore this great legacy, let them know you want to keep public lands in your public hands.