Just in time for the Fourth of July — when millions of people across the country will visit America’s national parks and other public lands — the Koch brothers are rolling out their latest campaign against these treasured places: pushing for no more national parks.
In an op-ed published in Tuesday’s New York Times, Reed Watson, the executive director at the Koch-backed Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), along with a research associate at the Center, call for no more national parks, citing the backlog in maintenance for existing parks.
“True conservation is taking care of the land and water you already have, not insatiably acquiring more and hoping it manages itself,” the op-ed reads. “Let’s maintain what we’ve already got, so we can protect it properly,” it concludes.
While the authors seem to push for “true conservation” from the federal government, in reality, PERC has a long history of advocating for the privatization of America’s national parks and other public lands, and has significant ties to the Koch brothers and fossil fuel industries.
PERC, which labels itself as “a property rights and environmental organization,” has received significant contributions from Koch-backed organizations, including from Donors Trust, which has been called the “dark-money ATM of the right.” Additionally, Watson, the lead author of the op-ed and current PERC Executive Director, previously worked at the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, and in a 2009 op-ed criticized a number of bipartisan bills to protect wilderness, arguing that “land management agencies [should] turn a profit” by removing restrictions on timber and energy development.
In addition to arguing for no new national parks, PERC’s op-ed also calls for an end to one of America’s best parks programs, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF is a budget-neutral program that uses funds from offshore oil and gas development fees to fund federal, state and local outdoor projects across the country. The program has been used to support some of America’s most iconic national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, and has helped create tens of thousands of outdoor projects such as local parks and baseball diamonds in all 50 states.
Members of Congress from both parties have called for full funding and reauthorization of the LWCF before it expires permanently on September 30. However, PERC and a select few Republican leaders in Congress are instead advocating for diverting the funds to cover maintenance costs, despite continuing to cut the National Park Service’s budget.
PERC and its oil and gas allies have also ramped up involvement in an extreme right wing campaign to give control of America’s public lands to the states and sell them off to the highest bidder. In March, PERC released a study that claimed to provide economic evidence to support the transfer of national public lands to state control. The study was widely cited in a series of nearly identical op-eds written by a front group for the oil and gas-backed public relations firm of Richard Berman, nicknamed “Dr. Evil” by consumer-protection and organizations he has targeted.
However, an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities (CWP) shows that PERC’s economic analysis is “flawed,” ignoring billions of dollars spent every year fighting wildfires and “fail[ing] to account for the multiple values provided by national public lands,” beyond drilling, mining, and logging. The study’s “glaring flaws would suggest that the authors designed a study to specifically support the organization’s ideology, which prioritizes extractive industries, reduces public access through privatization, and ignores the benefits of balanced land management,” CWP wrote in April.
CWP also cites two recent studies in its analysis from economists in Utah and Idaho showing that states would not be able to afford to manage lands if they were transferred to state control. In addition to the serious economic concerns they raise for state budgets, these proposals to transfer America’s public lands to the states and sell them off to private interests are unpopular with Western voters, and most importantly, unconstitutional.
Despite these concerns, PERC and its oil and gas allies in Congress have continued to ramp up efforts to seize and sell off America’s public lands and push an overall “No More National Parks” campaign. While these highly partisan and divisive attacks on the environment have taken priority in Congress, the conservation efforts supported by both parties, such as the reauthorization of the LWCF, are at risk of being left behind. Congress will have less than 100 days to act and reauthorize LWCF when it returns from recess next week.
Claire Moser is the Research and Advocacy Associate with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @Claire_Moser.