Mountain Lions on a Fence - Lori Iverson/USFWS.
Mountain Lions on a Fence – Lori Iverson/USFWS.
I didn’t grow up with fences.

In the small Midwestern town where I grew up, everyone’s backyard was still “open range.” I joined the rest of the kids in my neighborhood to roam that open range, playing Hide & Seek and tag, tracking garter snakes and keeping a watchful eye on this spring’s litter of baby bunnies. We set up our own tag football field.  The maple tree behind my house marked the 50-yard line.

The father of the kid who lived directly behind us worked for one of the big tire factories in Akron.  One year he brought home a long rope made of some new rubber compound being developed by his company.  We built a platform in a tree in the back corner of his yard.  From there, we swung out over the raspberry bushes in the back corner of my yard to a “landing zone” on my next-door neighbor’s lawn.  We referred to this as our “Tarzan Swing.” Bungee jumping wouldn’t come on the scene for another decade.  The trick was to jump off the platform and ride the rubbery rope as it bounced up and down and then let go on the down swing near that soft grass next door.  Performing the trick would have been impossible if our three yards had been fenced off.

I live in a neighborhood now with fences everywhere, 6-foot high edifices carefully demarcating the line between what is mine and what is theirs. The kids in this neighborhood often play in the street, their carefully fenced backyards too small to run or to kick a ball.

America’s Biggest and Best Backyard — Our Public Lands

Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park. Flickr photo by Alan English.
Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park. Flickr photo by Alan English.
Luckily for me, I also live in a place with easy access to America’s biggest and best backyard – the federal public lands.

The National Wildlife Federation is releasing a new report this week, Valuing Our Western Public Lands.  Our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments, wilderness areas, and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management belong to all of us. Overseen by the federal government on behalf of all citizens, public lands are the last tangible vestige of the vast open spaces that once dominated the American landscape.  They still provide room for both people and wildlife to roam.

The National Park System lands receive more than 280 million visits each year.  But it’s not just the parks; more than 70 million people visit BLM lands each year.  They come to raft the rivers, hike the trails, and ride the back roads and trails. They fish, they hunt, they hike, they ride, they float, and they camp. They visit heritage sites, wild and scenic rivers, national trails and national conservation areas. They come to see wildlife that would otherwise only be visible behind the fences and walls of a city zoo.

The public lands are, of course, an enormous economic driver for communities across the country.  According to the report:

Economic studies show public lands — mostly concentrated in the West — are magnets for professionals, retirees, and businesses seeking a high quality of life. Communities located near public lands experience relatively higher measures of economic growth. In addition, the tourism and outdoor recreation industries are thriving as visitors from around the world flock to the West to enjoy its untamed and picturesque landscapes. The outdoor recreation industry alone contributes nearly $650 billion to the U.S. economy and supports more than 6 million jobs.

But a quick buck isn’t the only reason we should conserve these lands.  As the report notes, the results of a recent national survey indicate that protecting air quality, water quality, wildlife habitat, unique wild plant and animal species, and being able to pass wilderness on to future generations consistently rate as the top five most important benefits of public lands.

Building Fences?

Birds on a Fence - Steve Koob/USFS National Elk Refuge volunteer

Unfortunately, in the past year, legislatures in seven western states—Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho—have passed, introduced, or explored legislation demanding that the federal government turn over millions of acres of these lands to the states. If successful, these bills would impose an enormous loss on both people and wildlife.

Rather than being managed for the benefit and use of the American public, these lands would instead be managed in whatever way each state wants to use them—which generally means maximizing private profits through mining, drilling, and other resource extraction or selling them off to private developers. Those developers undoubtedly will build fences to keep me and rest of the public out, fences to keep wildlife out as well.

The politicians who support these measures are out of touch with their communities.  A significant majority of western voters (67 percent) oppose proposals to sell off public lands or turn them over to the states.  Proposition 120, a ballot measure to give Arizona “sovereign and exclusive authority and jurisdiction” over the land, air, water, and wildlife within its boundaries, was resoundingly defeated by a 2-1 margin last November.  Still, throughout the 112th and 113th Congresses, federal lawmakers also introduced dozens of bills that sought to sell off or roll back protections for public lands.  Seems like they just want to see every acre carved up into separate little fenced-off parcels so that it will be clear what is yours and what is mine, but nothing will be ours — no “open range” left for kids and wildlife and all of us to roam.

Keep Public Lands in Public Hands

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Mule deer and other wildlife are losing habitat due to drilling in Western lands. You can take action to protect our public lands today>>

Read the National Wildlife Federation’s report Valuing Our Western Public Lands to learn about the contribution of these lands to our communities and sign up on Our Public Lands to join the effort to keep public lands in public hands. Don’t let them fence us out.