Public Trust: In defense of public lands

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Photo courtesy of Patagonia Films

If you’ve ever gone camping, hiking, biking, fishing or hunting, chances are you’ve employed your right to national public lands. Since the foundation of the National Parks Service in 1916, public lands have been preserved and protected so that Americans can enjoy the natural beauty and resources of their country. 

In 1946, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was created to regulate the use of public lands and to preserve the environments and natural resources of those lands. And in 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) was brought into effect, mandating the permanent federal ownership of all public lands and creating more rigorous environmental protections. 

So if public lands have been deemed permanently public, and the BLM is primarily focused on environmental protection, why do public lands need defending? Well, as the 2020 film “Public Trust” shows, public lands are far from protected. This documentary is available to stream for free on YouTube and PBS.

“Public Trust” primarily follows the stories of three public lands and their defenders: Bear’s Ears in Utah, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. In each case, the Americans who benefit from the land fight to keep local governments from selling their public lands to businesses that only plan to strip the region of its raw materials with no regard for the health of the environment. 

Following the Alaskan oil boom at Prudhoe Bay, state representative Don Young devoted his career to bringing oil drilling companies into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is the home of the Gwich’in Nation. This area is also the breeding ground for the porcupine caribou, a species that holds cultural significance for the Gwich’in people and serves as one of their most important food sources. 

Though Young argues that just a fraction of the 19 million acres in the refuge would be affected by drilling, the loss of breeding grounds would not only affect the caribou population, but the Gwich’in Nation, and the environment as a whole. 

One might think that the acquisition of public lands by private corporations would at least boost local economies. However, the case of Boundary Waters in Minnesota provides evidence to the contrary. 

According to the film, the Boundary Waters wilderness provides 140,000 jobs for Minnesotans. Recently, there has been a push by politicians to sell sections of the Boundary Waters to Antofagasta, a Chilean copper mining company. 

At first, it seems like industrial mining could create a great many jobs for the region, but Antofagasta has only estimated a maximum of 650 new jobs. Additionally, the runoffs from copper mining are highly toxic, and because of the currents running throughout the Boundary Waters region, a single burst retaining pond would ruin the entire 1 million-acre wilderness area. 

Here, the privatization of public lands does not significantly boost local economies, and it is potentially deadly to the environment. 

While there are no federally owned public lands in the state of Texas, the loss of federal public lands in other states has the potential to negatively impact our own Texan environment. 

Higher rates of pollution from industrial mining and drilling on federally owned public lands contribute to the rising temperatures and erratic weather patterns around the world. Privatization of refuges like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sets a precedent for further destruction of valuable land. 

If we allow corporations to destroy the little-known places of natural beauty, what’s to stop them from chopping down the Redwood forests, or strip mining the Grand Canyon? After all, these natural landmarks are resource-rich public lands too. 

Although the issue may seem distanced from those of us living in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, in a state with no federal public lands, it is far from insignificant. While America is indeed rich in natural resources, these resources are not inexhaustible. 

Ultimately, Americans must decide what it is that makes America so great after all. And if we allow our priorities to rest with the businesses that promise wealth but care little for the preservation of this country’s natural beauty and essential ecosystems, are we willing to sacrifice America the Beautiful?

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