Tomorrow is the 19th annual National Public Lands Day, the “nation’s largest, single-day volunteer event for public lands.” More than 170,000 Americans will volunteer their time helping to restore and conserve their favorite places.
It’s a good time to reflect on why we have set aside more than 700 million acres of federal public lands that are managed by the government on behalf of all Americans. This is especially true considering that a number of politicians have demonstrated their ignorance of this national asset. Even Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told the Reno Gazette-Journal in February that he doesn’t know “what the purpose is” of public lands.
Public lands have a wide variety of purposes, from contributing to the economy to being an important part of our heritage. Here is our list of the top five purposes and benefits of public lands:
1. They provide a place for all Americans—not just the wealthy few—to play. America’s system of public lands leaves them open to everyone, no matter how rich or poor. And this is unique—as Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) wrote, “In most countries in the world, if you aren’t landed gentry, good luck hunting and fishing. Your best bet in many of those places is to pay a steep price to hunt and fish on someone else’s private land.” Public lands reflect many of our democratic ideals, such as equality and liberty.
2. They are part of our national heritage. Currently America boasts 397 national park units, 103 national monuments, and 757 wilderness areas. Each of these represents a time or place that is important to our history as an American people. From the newly created Chimney Rock National Monument that honors Native Americans, to Yellowstone National Park that echoes the spirit that drew us westward, to Fort Monroe National Monument that tells the story of slavery and the Civil War, our public lands are part of our collective memory as a nation.
3. They create economic development and jobs. America’s lands have for hundreds of years provided the natural resources that keep our economy moving. Today, public lands are the source of coal, oil, gas, timber, and other minerals, and their extraction provides economic benefits and jobs. Additionally, protecting public lands stimulates economic development by way of tourism and the active outdoor industry. A recent report from the Department of the Interior found that in 2011, the agency contributed $385 billion to the economy and supported 2 million jobs (this number does not include the contributions of the U.S. Forest Service).
4. They help provide clean air and clean water. Mountains, forests, and rivers are the source of many of the natural amenities on which we depend. Public lands provide these resources to a vast number of people—for example, more than 124 million Americans get their clean drinking water from national forests. And forests and grasslands filter carbon pollution from the air caused by burning fossil fuels and other industrial activity. Protecting these places from development and keeping them in tact will ensure that future generations are able to continue relying on them.
5. They are crucial to helping our country adapt to climate change. Public lands are important both on the mitigation and adaptation sides of climate change. Forests are extremely important to the long-term storage of carbon—the Forest Service reports that forests and wood products are responsible for sequestering 200 million tons of carbon every year, equivalent to “about 10 percent of annual emissions from fossil fuels.” Additionally, large tracts of intact lands will be critical to ensuring that species are able to migrate to more suitable habitats as global warming changes the landscape.
This is also an important time to be talking about public lands issues because they have made appearances in a number of elections this year. Other than Romney’s gaffe, public lands have played a role in the New Mexico and Montana Senate races, Utah’s governor race, and in a ballot initiative in Arizona. For the very existence of public lands to continue, it is important that we understand the positions that our candidates have on public lands issues, and what their visions are for them in the future.
Jessica is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.