Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) doesn’t like that militants are currently occupying a federal wildlife facility in Oregon. But he does like the militia’s main idea: Seizing and selling off America’s public lands.
On Wednesday, Rubio explained his position on the controversial occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, now entering its fifth day. Rubio said that while he doesn’t support “lawless” activity, he does agree with the militia on its main point that federal public lands should be transferred to private ownership for activities like logging, coal mining, oil drilling, and farming.
“I most certainly believe that the federal government controls far too much land in the Western parts of the United States especially,” Rubio told the Des Moines Register’s editorial board. “The state of Nevada is an example — it’s almost entirely owned by the federal government. And it goes well beyond the legitimate need of land ownership for defense purposes, for example.”
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Though the federal government does own some land for defense purposes — more than 14 million acres are administered by the Department of Defense — one of the core reasons for government ownership of land is environmental protection. Indeed, the United States owns approximately 640 million acres of land, and much of that is owned for purposes of preservation and conservation. Private activities like mining are sometimes permitted on these lands, depending on the lands’ level of protection and provided the activities don’t clash with the needs of protected species.
The militia currently occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge argues that the federal government’s ownership of so much land — about 28 percent of America — is costing them their economic livelihoods. They are not allowed to graze, farm, mine, or drill on a good deal of protected land. And they want to.
Rubio wants them to, too. In fact, his first promise in his presidential campaign’s energy plan is to transfer all federally-owned energy resources to the states. That way, Rubio argues, states can have more power over their own natural resources.
While that may sound reasonable, progressives argue that Rubio’s plan would essentially cause a free-for-all, where states can devastate national forests, parks, and other important wildlife and plantlife zones for temporary economic gain.
“Such a shift would give state governors unprecedented power to sell drilling and mining rights in America’s national forests, national parks, and other public lands; to waive environmental protections; and to seize revenues owed to U.S. taxpayers,” a 2015 report from the Center for American Progress reads. “Sen. Rubio’s energy plan is the latest indication that the radical idea of selling, transferring, or privatizing America’s public lands and energy resources has entered the mainstream of Republican politics.”
Many in the American west agree with ranchers’ complaints that there should be more livestock grazing on public lands. According to a 2015 poll by the Outdoor Industry Association, the vast majority of voters in Colorado and Nevada prioritize making public lands available for grazing. Voters in those states also support making public lands available for oil and gas, mining, and logging.
Those voters do not, however, support Rubio’s idea of transferring ownership of American public lands to states. Sixty-four percent of voters in Colorado and 58 percent of voters in Nevada said they oppose giving states control over nationally-owned resources.