Towards the middle of the new film Public Trust, about the continued push by zealous conservatives to privatize ownership of the United States’ federally-managed public lands, the stakes are laid bare: “If you don’t get engaged, you lose,” says Land Tawney, president and CEO of the nonprofit Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “When you get complacent, things are done to you.”
Tawney is speaking of the 640m acres that are owned by the country’s citizenry. Few things in politics are as quintessentially American as the country’s vast system of public lands. No other nation on earth has this much property that belongs to its people and is intended to be management by the government for the benefit and uplift of all. Yet selling off those lands is still listed as a goal in the Republican party platform, and the Trump administration seems singularly focused on rolling back protections to usher in more drilling and mining.
Public Trust, executive produced by Robert Redford and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, is required viewing for anyone hoping to understand the public lands issue. Patagonia Films is releasing it online for free today, one day before National Public Lands Day.
The film is a mix of Planet Earth–worthy cinematography, old news clips, and on-the-ground interviews with dozens of experts, ranchers, and Native Americans. Mostly, though, it follows investigating reporter Hal Herring as he travels around the US to get a firsthand glimpse of some of the most imperiled public lands – the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), and Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah, which President Trump reduced by 85% in 2017.
“We’ve arrived at a moment,” Herring says in the film, “where we are going to decide whether we’re going to keep the birthright and the legacy of our public lands [system] or whether we simply want to unleash the forces of industry and live in a world where everything is for sale.”
In other words, the November elections could determine the fate of many of the most iconic and cherished ecosystems in the US, from national forests to wildlife refuges.
Much of the film, directed by David Garrett Byars and Jeremy Hunter Rubingh, is dedicated to explaining the rise of the anti-public-land sentiment, and at this it does admirable job. The origins begin in the Reagan administration and the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, a movement that started with legitimate grievances from Western ranchers about shifting land management policies. That movement was quickly coopted, however, and the ranchers’ outrage became a Trojan horse for well-heeled interests – logging companies, oil and gas corporations, and mining interests – looking to create an opening to push for continued resource extraction.
That dynamic is essentially the same today: conflicts over the management of public lands are glommed onto by anti-federal-government ideologues and stirred up further to make the case that public lands are impossible to manage thus shouldn’t exist at all. This extremist view was popular among the heavily-armed men and women who occupied Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, claiming abusive government overreach on federally-managed lands.
But a lot has changed since 2016, as the film documents. Many anti–public land forces now control the levers of power. Bears Ears was reduced by the Trump administration despite years of work by local tribes to come up with an effective management plan accommodating all interests. Advocates of protecting the Boundary Waters are once again fighting against the opening of a copper mine. And in Alaska, indigenous communities and environmental advocates are engaged in a battle to protect the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) from becoming just another oil field.
All of these issues and more are now the backdrop the 3 November elections. The Republican party continues to push privatization. This is where the film leaves off – with a cri de coeur about the importance of voting, and about finding common ground on an issue that is fundamentally unifying.
“We need to reach a place where the American public lands are post political and the two parties can argue over the best method to accomplish the goals we have on those lands,” Herring said in an interview this week.
As an example of how bipartisan, or perhaps apolitical, public lands can be, Herring points to Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, one of the most vocal pro–public lands advocacy groups in the country. In a poll this month of its 20,000 members, the group was split almost equally between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Even self-declared Libertarians, who as a group generally don’t believe in big government, make up 6% of a nonprofit solely dedicated to protecting a federally-managed estate. And the constituency of public lands may be quickly growing.
“Covid and social distancing has driven millions of people out onto the public lands, many for the first time,” says Herring. “This is the time to build a consensus that will be post-political on public lands. It’s ours to lose on this one.”