Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012 | 2 a.m.
As the Republican presidential nomination process moves on to the states of Nevada and Colorado, a new topic has arisen in a race that has already seen many twists and turns. That issue is the purpose and importance of public lands. In a recent interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the leading contender for the GOP nomination, was quoted as saying, in reference to the large acreage of public land in the state, “I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land.” As an organization whose mission is to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places, I think it is important to answer the governor’s query for all people who enjoy and benefit from our public lands.
Our public lands, which include national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and national wilderness areas, among others, are vital to America’s economy. Through recreation, such as hunting, fishing and hiking, and tourism, our public lands contribute over $1 trillion to the nation, not to mention millions of jobs.
Public lands provide much of our clean drinking water and without protection, much of it might be contaminated. Our public lands have also played an extremely important role in energy development, and the economic importance that comes with it. Oil and gas exploration could not have exploded the way it did during the early 20th century without our public lands, and now as we move forward in the 21st century, public lands can help us advance renewable energy development. Public lands provide some of the best places in the world for solar and wind energy and the energy self-dependence that the United States needs.
People of all political stripes in the West understand the importance of our public lands, as the Colorado College’s Conservation in the West Poll indicates. An overwhelming 78 percent of Westerners, across the entire spectrum, says, “We can protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs at the same time, without having to choose one over the other.” Sixty-eight percent think, “We should not allow private companies to profit from using our public lands when their doing so would limit the public's enjoyment of ‐ or access to ‐ these lands.” Ninety-six percent agree that public lands are “essential part of each state’s quality of life.” These finding support the contention that our public lands should be conserved and protected so that all Americans can enjoy them and recreate on them. Our public lands belong to all Americans. They are not for an individual state, or an individual company. They are a treasure and a legacy that extends back more than a century.
Gov. Romney has stated that as a child his family, “…went from national park to national park. And they were teaching me to fall in love with America.’’ We hope that as he travels the country, and especially our Western states, he will start to understand the answer to his question: Why does the government own so much of this land? For its preservation for future generations to experience what Gov. Romney did, traveling from sea to shining sea, marveling at the foresight of our ancestors to keep some special places free of exploitation, so all Americans have the chance to fall in love with this country like no other, where all the people own some land.
William H. Meadows is the president of The Wilderness Society.