Our Public Lands

There is no subject I have done more of a complete 180 degree change in my viewpoint about than the issue of public lands. The subject of public lands can be a divisive topic, and from what I have read and experienced, there is a lot of misinformation out there about it. Having my eyes opened to the reality of our public lands, the importance of them, and what it would mean to lose them has taken me from one of their critics to a passionate supporter of them.

My first serious experience hunting public land was drawing an Illinois Turkey permit that allowed me to hunt Winston Tunnel State Natural Area. While I wasn’t successful, I had an absolute amazing time.

My kit I carried around for two days while hunting turkeys on Illinois public land.

A broad overview of the history of federal ownership of land starts with the government owning large tracts of lands ceded to them by the states and territories to encourage westward expansion. When the west was “settled” around the turn of the century, thoughts on public lands shifted and the federal government opened the lands entrusted to them for grazing by cattle operations. In 1934 Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, and at the same time created the US Grazing Service. This was the first time the government regulated grazing activities that had been long freely allowed. In 1946, the Grazing service became the Bureau of Land Management.

During the height of the environmental movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Public Land Law Review Commission recommended that further land transfer from the federal government to the states should be considered only if the transfer benefits the general public, and that the government should retain land that doesn’t meet that criteria for the use of all Americans.

Public lands (save for National Park land) allow all sorts of recreation, from hunting and fishing, to biking, hiking, camping, target shooting and also off road vehicle recreation. These lands are used by millions of Americans every year, provide those who can’t afford to buy lands themselves to recreate, and also provide a source of income for communities in close proximity that otherwise wouldn’t have anything.

As long as there has been public lands, there has been the movement to privatize them. The biggest push recently has been to transfer public lands to state control, which sounds like a good idea on the surface, until you look at what that means for access. In the case of western lands, fire is always a threat due to the climate. The federal government spends millions annually on fighting wildfires. If these same lands were transferred to state control, firefighting efforts on these lands would bankrupt state budgets. Furthermore many state constitutions require that lands that aren’t making money for the state to be sold and the revenue used for the school system. This means that if the upkeep, maintenance and management of the lands costs more than what it generates, the land is to be sold to the private sector. This means that those lands that millions of people recreate on would be gone.

These lands were set aside for the purpose of use by all Americans, not just the select few that can afford to buy the land. The holding of these lands has been declared by anti public land officials such as Senator Mike Lee of Utah as “the King’s Land”, which harkens back to feudal England when the King owned the land. This couldn’t be further from the truth. These lands belong to all Americans, from all walks of life, not the top tier of the nation. If politicians like Mike Lee or Jason Chaffetz had their way, the 1% of our country would own the land and we the people would be excluded from it.

I used to think along the lines of people like Lee and Chaffetz. I used to think what business does the federal government have in owning land? I thought they controlled it and didn’t allow it to be used by anyone. I live in Illinois, where private ownership of land is rampant, and where state land holdings that are to be used by the public are severely limited, especially here in northern Illinois. Some of the lands I hunted as a kid have been sold, and are now subdivisions. It is getting harder and harder to get permission to hunt because some of the prime land is owned by people from Chicago or even in another state. I have a few private farms left to hunt, (one of which is for sale) but I have found myself eyeing public land as an option.

Listening to podcasts has broadened my horizons as I have said earlier, and listening to those who hunt the lands of the west has changed my view on public lands. Their passion for the land and the opportunity they have had because of it has inspired me to become an advocate. In fact, this past spring I applied for and received a permit to hunt turkeys on a state natural area here in Illinois. Even though I wasn’t successful it was one of the best times I’ve had hunting. It was so much fun in fact I plan to apply again with a buddy. We also have a plan to hunt a few of the other areas for archery deer this fall too.

I’ve gained a new appreciation for public lands, and will do everything I can to protect them. I’ve researched as much as I can about public lands, I’ve contacted my representatives, and now I’m using my blog to spread the word. What those who wish to take them from us hope for, is for us to believe the line that they are the “King’s Lands”. The reality is the opposite, these lands belong to all, and are being threatened by they few.

I will close this blog post with some words of wisdom that my father imparted on me in my youth. We were driving past a section of woods that had recently been purchased by the Conservation District near my home town. Knowing it was off limits to hunting, I scoffed at it and said to my dad,

“That sucks, conservation district bought that.”

He looked over at me and said,

“I’d rather see that conservation sign over a strip mall or rooftops.”

That hit me hard, knowing he was right, and how foolish I was. Today that land is public hunting by lottery. The few want to take from the many, we as stewards of the land and inheritors of our public lands need to defend it.

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