Commentary: Keep national parks as public land

Looking across the Grand Canyon to the North Rim, from the 9.5-mile Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River, about 4,500 feet below.

Say goodbye to long days spent hiking in Yellowstone, fishing in Yosemite, or camping in the Grand Canyon. Congress is moving to privatize millions of acres of public lands across the country.

The House of Representatives just passed a resolution that would weaken the federal government's role in preserving public land. That's only the tip off the iceberg. Last month, the House took the first step toward forfeiting tens of millions of acres of wilderness, streams, and mountains - the birthright of every American.

To protect their public lands, Americans need Donald Trump. The president promised to empower the people. If he's serious, he should pledge to veto any legislation that would compromise their heritage.

Support for public land took off during the late 19th century. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses Grant signed legislation to create America's first national park - Yellowstone - "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Almost 30 years later, President Teddy Roosevelt designated 230 million acres as worth protecting for future generations.

Today, almost one-third of the United States belongs to the people.

These areas benefit Americans financially. Recreation on public lands supports 6.1 million jobs while contributing $646 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

These benefits may cause problems for proponents of public land transfers. Under today's Congressional Budget Office rules, any legislation that unloads revenue-producing federal land must offset these costs elsewhere in the budget. So legislators looking to cede control of such land to the states would be on the hook for billions of dollars.

To get around this constraint, the House recently decreed that any transfer of public land to "state, local government, or tribal entity shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays."

In other words, public lands are worth nothing.

The House's move could allow legislators to transfer national holdings to the states. And its recent resolution continues this push by stripping the federal Bureau of Land Management of its "Planning 2.0" rule, which would have ensured responsible development of national land.

These legislative efforts mirror recent calls for public land transfers. The Republican party platform endorses the idea, and Utah is preparing to sue the federal government for control of million acres of land inside its borders.

The feds have transferred public land to the states before - with disastrous results. States simply can't afford to manage these areas. Last year, the Forest Service spent $240 million a week fighting wildfires. Utah spent almost that much each week just to run the state. Idaho's total weekly expenditures barely reached $129 million.

That's assuming states have money to spare. Nineteen states had to cut their budgets in 2016. Almost half have already reported lower than expected revenues going into this year, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

When states can't afford to manage public lands, they sell them. Nevada, which received 2.7 million acres when it became a state, only has 3,000 today. Idaho has sold off 40 percent of its state land, including almost 100,000 acres between 2000 and 2009. Utah has only half of its original allotment.

The potential income is hard to pass up. Take Wisconsin, which has considered selling its 93,000-acre Elliot State Forest to boost the state budget. The sale could net the Badger State $221 million.

When public land is sold, Americans lose. Privatization restricts access for anglers, hikers, hunters - everyone from the weekend warrior to the professional explorer. These losses erode Americans' extraordinary inheritance.

Folks pushing for state control of public lands have legitimate grievances. Federal agencies, for example, have deferred an estimated $11 billion in maintenance, such as improving roads.

But Americans don't want the solution to mean giving up public land. More than 9 in 10 people said the national parks are worth protecting, according to a survey from the Harvard Kennedy School.

The president has yet to clarify where he stands on this issue. But if he truly wants to give power to the people, as he said in his inaugural address, he should block any public land transfer. These lands belong to every American.

Doug Stuart is a hunter and angler living in Denver.