Federal lands, such as Glacier National Park, could revert to state control, if privatization advocates have their way. Will that limit our access to our most cherished places? ©Greg Pederson/USGS

This week, on Thursday, August 25, the National Park Service will celebrate its centennial. This year has been filled with campaigns and events to commemorate our shared and cherished public lands.

But underneath all the festivities lies a dark shadow. Currently, there is an effort afoot to transfer not only our national parks but all federally managed lands to state governments. It’s called privatization.

Are we in danger of losing access to the lands we love the most?

Public lands, such as Arches National Park, support a multibillion-dollar, outdoor-recreation industry. ©MoabAdventurer, flickr

A too grand landholder

Collectively, we Americans own 640 million acres of land. Most of that acreage is managed by one of four agencies: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service, the National Park Service (NPS) or the Fish and Wildlife Service. These tracts—with designations such as national conservation areas, national forests, national monuments, national parks, national scenic and historic trails, wild lands, wild and scenic rivers, wilderness areas and wilderness study areas—support a $646 billion, outdoor-recreation industry that includes backpacking, camping, climbing, biking, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, hunting, paddling, sailing, skiing and wildlife-watching.

But finding the funds to maintain these lands has been difficult. The National Park Service alone has a backlog of almost $12 billion in deferred maintenance. In fact, it has handed over the operation of many visitor services, such as lodges and gift shops, to private companies.

That’s part of the reason why some are advocating the turning over of our national public lands to the states. They argue that agencies, such as the BLM and NPS, are too costly and are too detached from local values. They believe that states could make money by running our vast open spaces like privately owned businesses. Some have even suggested that nonprofit conservation groups, such as the Sierra Club, could do a better job of protecting lands.

The wetlands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon draw thousands of birds—such as these American avocets—and their watchers. ©Barbara Wheeler/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A manifestation of this sentiment was seen in last winter’s armed takeover and 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. It was carried out by people who believed that in opposition to the wishes of local residents—who rely on the timber industry and sheep and cattle ranching—the federal government had overreached its authority by confiscating more than 100 ranchers’ homes (and thus their livelihoods) in order to “make themselves a little park.”

A greedy land-grabber

Others see the privatization effort as nothing more than a landgrab by the oil and gas extraction industries. They say that states have no more administrative capacity or budget to manage and protect these lands than the federal government.

History has shown that when large acreages of public domain remain under state control, significant portions of them end up being sold off to private interests. For example, since Congress gave land to Idaho at statehood, it has sold 41 percent of its acres to cattle ranchers, private fishing clubs, homeowners on Priest and Payette Lakes, and timber companies, locking out the public.

Proposition 120 would have removed the Grand Canyon from federal management. ©Airwolfhound, flickr

In 2012, Arizona’s Proposition 120, supported by state Republican legislators, would have amended the state’s constitution to “declare state sovereignty over the state’s natural resources,” defined as including “land, air, water, minerals and wildlife.” This measure would have turned Grand Canyon National Park over to the state. Luckily, the ballot measure was defeated 68 percent to 32 percent.

A park protector

For now, we can all enjoy the freedom to roam on some of the Earth’s most unique and spectacular landscapes, which have touched our American souls for generations.

For certain, national parks are central to our culture. Although we may now be deeply divided in our political beliefs, we are nearly unanimous in our thinking about national parks—and the role the federal government should take in protecting them. A survey conducted by both Republican and Democratic polling firms found that while there is sometimes vehement disagreement about the proper functions of the federal government, 95 percent of us say that protecting national parks is an appropriate role for the federal government. When told the amount we currently spend operating our parks, 92 percent of us believe that amount should be maintained or increased. That included 88 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats.

Will our children have the same access to our national parks that we now enjoy? ©Kurt Moses/NPS

So, this week and this year, as we celebrate 100 years of our National Park Service and its mission to protect public lands for all Americans, we should consider whether we want that universal access to endure.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,