By Leigh H. Perkins, Jr. and Benjamin Bulis, guest columnists (running in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and the Burlington Free Press)
This year, as our nation marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, we at the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) are reminded of author and historian Wallace Stegner’s observation about our national parks being “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
Stegner was right. Across our country – even in times of national strife and discord — shared and protected public spaces have always brought people together and served as a source of deep national pride. These lands provide access to outdoor recreation, help tell our national story and are a declarative statement about our nation’s commitment to protecting public lands as a commons for all Americans of all generations.
Unfortunately, just as we are celebrating the positive impacts of our shared public lands through this centennial anniversary, we are also witnessing an unprecedented and coordinated attack on the very concept that a nation should have shared public spaces that all its citizens can enjoy.
You might think we’re talking about recent events such as the illegal takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon or the unhinged rantings of the Bundy family – but you’d only be partially right. To accurately gauge the totality of the threats to our shared public lands, you must also look to the halls of American power.
Take the Antiquities Act, for instance. For 110 years, presidents of both parties have used the law to designate national monuments and protect our shared heritage. This law has been wildly successful for protecting natural and historic places including many important waterways and fishing grounds.
Over the past several years, anti-conservation voices in Congress, led by Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, have sought to gut the Antiquities Act and prevent presidents from protecting our public lands and heritage. This is almost unbelievable considering that Americans of all stripes support protecting these places. In addition, our public lands support a $650 billion outdoor recreation industry that includes fishing on our nation’s rivers, streams, lakes and oceans.
In addition to attacks on the Antiquities Act, public lands critics in Congress are also pushing to privatize, sell off and transfer to states our shared national lands. This is an antithesis to our democracy.
Proponents of transferring our shared public lands to the states often argue that these lands will still be protected. However, the reality is different as states often do not have the administrative capacity or budget to manage these lands at the same level of protection offered by the federal government. It is for this reason AFFTA recommends these lands remain in the hands of all Americans, rather than in the hands of individual states or private interests.
We represent 4.5 million anglers in America as well as the sport fishing industry that employees tens of thousands more. Our industry relies on the protection of public lands because these are the places where the rivers, streams, and beaches are healthier and where Americans learn the true majesty of a day spent angling in an unspoiled place.
We recognize that it’s not just our business that can be harmed by this anti-public lands agenda, it’s a way of life that would also be in peril should these “Sagebrush Rebels” get their way.
Our protected public lands are something that is unique and great about America. They are a promise to our children and grandchildren that they can access and enjoy what we can today. So, as Americans consider the legacy of our National Park System and our protected public lands as a whole during this centennial year, we must re-commit ourselves to ensuring that legacy of conservation and access endures. This is not just for our business, but for anyone who enjoys their national monuments, forests, and conservation lands, whether it’s for learning about our nation’s history, hiking a trail, gathering firewood, or making their living by guiding anglers to the best unspoiled places to catch a trout.
Leigh Perkins is CEO of The Orvis Company, based in Sunderland, Vermont. Benjamin Bulis is the president of American Fly Fishing Trade Association in Bozeman.