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Public lands privatization – the worst attacks on public lands you’ve never heard of
Public Lands Grabs
It’s essential to recognize that the West’s first land grab was from its Indigenous peoples. The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny—racist, self-serving convictions that non-Christian people could not govern themselves or put land to “productive” use—were invoked as justification to steal Native land and exploit its bountiful resources. From beaver to bison, copper to coal, grass to trees, thus began the West’s long history of exploitation and privatization that continues to this day.
In fact, public lands privatization schemes are very much alive and well in the U.S. But outside of the most egregious land grabs, most Americans don’t know about them. This report aims to change that—to raise awareness of the many proposals that threaten to rob us all, parcel by parcel, of public lands.
A Privatization Primer
Public lands privatization schemes—efforts to capture a portion of the country’s natural wealth for private gain—are as old as the republic. The laws that arose to allocate public resources in the West reflect that exploitation mindset, with the prior appropriation doctrine (for surface waters), Homestead Act of 1862 (land), and Mining Law of 1872 (hard rock minerals) all granting exclusive ownership to the first party able to exploit the resource.
Outside of the most notorious plans to divest the country of its common wealth—such as the bill from then-U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) in 2017 to sell off more than three million acres of public land across eleven Western states—most Americans are unaware of today’s privatization endeavors. The proposals listed here illustrate these endeavors’ broad scope.
Why should you care about these privatization schemes? Privatization causes significant environmental harms, reduces land available for hunting, fishing and quiet recreation, and destroys lands sacred to Native Americans. Selling or trading public lands on the peripheries of metropolitan areas in the desert Southwest results in sprawl that expands the wildland-urban interface, strains limited water supplies, degrades air quality and contributes to climate change. Land trades are often employed to enable or expand mining projects, resulting in the loss of sacred lands and poisoning of wildlife, water quality, and fish. Ski area development and expansion displaces wildlife, damages fragile alpine ecosystems, and increases traffic and air pollution.
It’s no surprise the mining industry, which has been plundering public lands since before the California Gold Rush, is well-represented on this list. But today, city planning and even outdoor recreation are fostering privatization.
Proposals on the list range from exchanges and sales of public lands to more insidious efforts, such as President Trump’s slashing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments to open more public lands for fossil fuels development. Some of the proposals were presented to the federal land management agencies. Others were presented to Congress. Still others were ordered by the president or the Interior Secretary. While the history and circumstances of each are different, collectively they indicate the privatization agenda is thriving, despite overwhelming support for public lands.
Where It’s Happening
Ray Mine Expansion
The owner of the Ray Mine has an abominable track record of environmental damage, but the Bureau of Land Management is nevertheless proposing a land trade with it. Learn more.
Village at Wolf Creek
A billionaire wants to build a ski resort squarely in the middle of important Canada lynx habitat. Learn more.
Emery County Public Land Management Act
This bill would bring coal mining, oil and gas development, and expanded motorized use to land renowned for its incredible features and backcountry hunting. Learn more.
King Cove Land Exchange
A privatization scheme in Alaska would build an unnecessary 12-mile-long road through a national wildlife refuge. Learn more.
Las Vegas Sprawl
With Las Vegas’ population exploding, local officials are seeking to privatize thousands of acres of public land for development. Learn more.
Resolution Copper Mine
A controversial land exchange would develop one of the nation’s largest copper mines on public land sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe. Learn more.
Dairy Syncline Mine
A proposed mine threatens selenium contamination and deadly consequences for wildlife. Learn more.
OMYA Mining Public Land Sale
With the OMYA Mining Public Land Sale, the government would sell part of a wildlife corridor linkage area to a notorious polluter. Learn more.
Escalante National Monument Reductions
Trump cut Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument nearly in half, a gift to the fossil fuel industry. Learn more.
Bears Ears Monument Reductions
Trump slashed more than 1.1 million acres from Bears Ears National Monument at the behest of the uranium and oil and gas industries. Learn more.
ONSHORE Act and Federal Land Freedom Act
These sneaky pieces of legislation would allow states to regulate natural resource extraction on public lands, opening the door for oil and gas companies to loot them at will. Learn more.
Public Lands Privatization Schemes
Learn more about the public lands at risk across the United States.