Monday, April 27, 2015 | 2 a.m.
It’s the time of year when family conversations turn to summer vacation. Who among us hasn’t felt renewed after day-tripping, camping or renting a cabin in the wilderness that is held in trust for us by our federal government? Whether hiking, fishing, star-gazing, taking pictures or just breathing deeply, a visit to a wilderness area is an antidote to many of life’s stresses and pressures — the chance to get away from it all and to build memories that will be cherished for years.
Here in Southern Nevada, we can indulge ourselves with the stark beauty of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and that same day, at a higher elevation, experience an invigorating 40 miles of trails that wind through 18,000 acres of bristlecone pines at Mount Charleston, part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
America’s love affair with the wilderness is, by many measures, more passionate than ever. Since 1988, voters in more than 1,800 state and local elections in 43 states have authorized more than $70 billion to conserve land, according to the Trust for Public Land.
There are, of course, some absurd exceptions to that goal of conservation. Republicans in the Nevada Legislature, clinging to the sagebrush rebellion, recently tried to pass a bill to unilaterally seize land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The bill was deemed unconstitutional at the get-go.
We thought that would be the end of discussion about wresting wilderness out of the hands of the American people. (This is, after all, land for all of us to enjoy and preserve for future generations.)
Silly us. We didn’t anticipate what Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, was up to when she took over leadership of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She authored an amendment to the federal budget that calls for the federal government to swap, sell and otherwise release all of its wilderness except for national parks, monuments and preserves.
So even national forests such as Humboldt-Toiyabe, which spreads throughout Nevada and is the largest national forest in the lower 48 states, and the BLM’s Red Rock Canyon and Sloan Canyon National Conservation Areas, would be tagged for disposal by Congress.
The amendment was approved in March by a 51-49 Senate vote. Every Democrat opposed it, as did three Republicans who deserve a shout-out for their integrity — Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Corey Gardner of Colorado. Nevada’s Dean Heller supported the call to give away our wilderness.
Murkowski’s amendment doesn’t have the power of law. But it is seen on Capitol Hill as a mission statement of sorts, a plank in the Republican Party’s platform that says yes, we as a group of politicians are on board with dumping federal lands off our ledger sheet. Let the states have them, and do with them what they will — even if it means selling the land.
What would the states do with the wilderness? It’s clear, for instance, that Nevada doesn’t have the financial resources to be a proper caretaker of Red Rock Canyon or the sprawling Humboldt-Toiyabe, with its campgrounds, trails, fishing lakes, off-road riding, picnic areas and accommodations for winter sports. What would the state do, then? All eyes would turn to the extraction of natural resources, including gold, silver and oil. The land would be pillaged. And with those sorts of operations, there would be no tolerance for your family to show up with tents and sleeping bags. You would be persona non grata at what once was a treasure held in the public trust.
House Republicans are even more blunt, passing by a 228-119 margin another nonbinding resolution that declared “the federal estate is far too large” and proposed giving the land to states for their own economic development.
None of this bodes well for conservation, a pillar of our American values. Republicans on Capitol Hill, and those in state houses like Nevada’s who want to seize federal land, have lost the very vision that for generations has distinguished how we value and protect our wilderness. If it is lost, it can’t be reclaimed. Our wild lands are to be protected, not exploited.