04/10/2012 05:43 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2012

Park Fire Sale

As the chairman of the House Energy Subcommittee on Investigations, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., is a powerful force in Republican congressional ranks. That said, when he recently suggested the federal government sell off some of our national parks to reduce the budget deficit, was he reflecting the prevailing sentiment of his party?

Raise the prospect of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park being transferred to a developer, and you get vehement repudiation from Republican congressional leaders. They unanimously insist that our world famous national parks are sacrosanct and would never be subject to sale.

Really? For more than a century, the federal government's vast holdings in the Rocky Mountain states have stuck in the craw of Republican lawmakers from that region. Many have made no secret of their desire to bring drilling pads, chain saws, and bulldozers into play where wilderness preservation currently reigns supreme. They view the extensive federal ownership as shortchanging local economies. And while few have been as outspoken as Congressman Stearns, it is clear that if the GOP had sufficient votes, some of our national parks, wildlife refuges, and designated wilderness areas would be changing hands -- either by being auctioned off or handed over to the states.

On conveyance of federal lands to the states, the Republican Party in the West has an extensive history of promoting that course of action. It is no small wonder since these Republican state officials have traditionally been closely associated with local extractive industries eager to harvest the previously off limit unspoiled federal lands. The most recent effort to reduce Washington's presence has been the Utah legislature's enactment of a bill authorizing the state to seize certain federal lands within its borders by eminent domain. It is a course of action that fortunately has been decisively struck down a number of times by either the U.S. Supreme Court or lower tribunals.

Conservatives' philosophical justification for privatization of public lands was succinctly articulated back in the 1980s by the late Senator Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo. He contended that "If you destroy private property that you own, you are the one who loses. Common or public ownership provides far fewer and much weaker inducements to good stewardship."

Nonsense. It is a fact that public servants and the public in general take great pride in preserving the country's natural heritage. Most people are every bit as proprietary about national parks as they are about their own backyards. By contrast, there is often the temptation for private purchasers of public lands to maximize profits regardless of ecological cost.

Again, states containing vast tracts of federal land complain they are being economically disenfranchised. But national parks and other protected federal lands generate substantial revenue for surrounding jurisdictions as well as the nation as a whole, primarily through tourism, and do so while preserving ecological integrity.

Yes, Congressional Republicans assure us they would never dispose of our major national parks, yet they have introduced bills that would make some national monuments and wildlife refuges eligible for energy exploitation, if not outright purchase. Someone is clearly seeking a commercial foot in the door, so the question arises: if the land sale floodgates ever opened, could Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks be far behind?