In 1217, two years after England’s King John signed the Magna Carta, King Henry III agreed to a companion document, the Charter of the Forest. Royalty, nobles and the clergy were at odds over claims to land that had once been shared by all. The charter intervened, codifying the concept of public lands — the commons — as foundational for “free men.” Among the rights spelled out was access for all — not just the 13th century’s 1% — to the kingdom’s forests, to gather wood for fuel, graze livestock, forage plants and more.
For those who scraped together a living off the land in medieval England, the recognition of the commons was a matter of survival. Eight hundred years later in America, as we fight our own battles over shared natural resources, validating the commons remains a matter of freedom and survival for the many, against the privileges of the few.
Debates over America’s public lands have grown increasingly vehement in recent years. Battles lines are drawn over state attempts to “take back” federal lands that were never theirs to begin with, over industry’s incessant attacks on environmental regulations and over the push by some politicians and special interests to negate the commons altogether by privatizing what currently belongs to us all.
William Perry Pendley, the Trump administration’s acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, spent most of his career advocating for just such privatization as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver. Pendley, who now oversees a quarter-billion federally owned acres, is on the record: National ownership of public lands is “oppressive,” especially when environmentalists activate a “hyper-engaged public” whose stake in public lands he simply discounts. Federal stewardship, in his view, erodes state sovereignty and diminishes individual citizens’ “dignity.”
Pendley and others of his stripe — many of them politicians supported by donations from extractive industries — want you to believe that public lands, and the regulations that protect them, are an outrage to liberty. But for anyone who hikes, hunts, studies or just hangs out in national forests and parks, who pays for grazing rights on BLM rangeland, who fishes in a clean trout stream or floats on a wild and scenic river, the land held in trust for the people, by the people, isn’t antithetical to our liberty. It defines it.
In Montana, where I live, I can drive a few miles to a bare clearing in front of an unremarkable gate and walk behind it to access more than 20,000 acres of national forest. This is the commons. When I was growing up, one deer held my family of five for most of the winter and made up for the meager addition of food stamps to my parents’ small incomes.
State “transfer” is the mantra of many who want to dismantle the public trust embodied in federal land. It’s true that states as well as Washington can hold and even preserve land, but it’s also clear that the goal of “transfer” isn’t to give us all more access to the commons, more freedom. It’s to increase short-term profit for the few at the expense of the rights of the many. Transfer advocates tend to lobby for privatization in principle and against environmental protections. Moreover, Western states have a long history of selling off their public lands when revenues fall short: Nevada has sold 90% of its state-owned lands to private buyers; Oregon has sold more than 50%.
U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, at least makes his goals for our commons clear. His idea is to convert public lands to private property with a “new Homestead Act,” ostensibly to solve the housing crisis. He turns history on its head when he claims that BLM and other national lands — open and owned by all — are actually akin to England’s royals-only forests before King Henry III signed the charter.
Sacrificing public lands to the corporate maw or acceding to the notion that only private property confers liberty will not smooth our wealth inequality; it will not solve our social ills. Rather, maintaining our monuments and forests, beaches and parklands in trust for each of us and for all of us — as contentious as that can be in a democracy — constitutes our collective wealth and defines American freedom.
Antonia Malchik is the author of “A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time.”