Every American citizen has a voting share of 3.04 billion acres of surface and subsurface land—land acquired over the course of 230 years, though at a devastating cost to Indigenous people, and today worth trillions of dollars. While not everyone can access it safely, this land can be visited free of charge, with exceptions for the national parks and forests, where entrance and permitting fees pay for rangers and maintenance. Some of this land is leased to oil, gas, mining and timber companies, for a 12 percent royalty—a bargain rate that hasn’t changed in more than 50 years. And that might seem strange, except that the four major agencies that manage all your property—the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Forest Service, Federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service—have a revolving-door problem with these companies. This is not a new problem, but now it’s worse than ever.
Back in 2016, when he was running for office, Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” of special interests. Ever since he entered the White House, however, he’s done the opposite. He’s appointed more than 100 former private-industry lobbyists to key executive branch positions, as well as to (mis)manage your public lands.
Prior to replacing Ryan Zinke as Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt collected nearly $5 million for his law firm from energy clients. According to an investigation by High Country News, these former clients have spent $29.9 million on lobbying efforts since then, the majority of which has been spent lobbying the Department of the Interior. Bernhardt, in turn, appointed William Perry Pendley as “acting director” of the BLM. (Pendley still hasn’t been confirmed by Congress). Before taking office, Pendley spent more than three decades suing the BLM on behalf of corporations and individuals.
OK, you might say, so swamp things run the swamp. Are they helping the Trump administration protect our lands and get a good price for it? No, hell no!
Over the last two decades, more than 20 million acres of surface land that belongs to taxpayers has been transferred from the federal government to favored politicians or their financial supporters. Under Trump and Bernhardt, and Pendley, this looting has accelerated.
Both Bernhardt and Sonny Perdue, head of the Department of Agriculture, have relocated thousands of expert employees from Washington, DC, to Kansas and Grand Junction, Colorado, removing civil servants hired to protect your interests from the Capitol, where all the important budget decisions are made. These moves weaken oversight and science-based conservation. Despite depressed oil prices, an oil glut and the COVID crisis, the BLM sold off drilling rights for roughly 87,000 Western acres just during the last week of March. This must stop.
And it can. But there is something you must do: Vote!
You can stop the abuse of our public lands. Start by making sure you’re registered to vote. Then get your friends, your family, your neighbors and, yes, strangers to turn out on Election Day. Or request your absentee ballot now and vote by mail. Vote early if you can.
By voting, you can elect those who will promote and implement projects that use our public lands for the public good. Public lands can be used to further study and mitigate climate change, and they can be used as areas to store carbon. Public lands can keep us safer—by identifying aquifers where excess floodwater can go and by leaving wildlife habitat intact.
After the 2016 election, I asked my students at the University of Utah if they had voted. Only one-third had. When I asked the other two-thirds why they hadn’t voted, they replied, “My vote doesn’t count.” No, hell no! Don’t let the misinformation campaigns convince you otherwise. Their votes could have made all the difference. Yours still can.