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Congress Claims Public Lands Are Worthless; We Disagree

Our public lands are part of the birthright of every American citizen, entrusted to our care on behalf of God, the True Owner.

As the Bible says:

"How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all"; and "In His hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to Him"; and "The earth is the LORD's, and the fullness thereof." (Psalms 104:24, 95:4 and 24:1).

yosemite
A general view of the Yosemite Falls flowing in Yosemite National Park in this December 3, 2014 picture provided by the National Park Service. |

Genesis 1 and 2 teaches us that God declared all Creation to be good, and placed humans as stewards of His creation. As citizens, we have a stewardship responsibility for all public lands, not only to God, but for present and future generations. Passed on to us by our forbearers, it's part of our job to do the same.

The House of Representatives has other ideas; like Esau, they want to give your birthright of public lands away for nothing; they have declared our public lands to be worthless.

Because House Members are elected every two years, when they take office it is the start of a new Congress, in this instance the 115th Congress. At the beginning of a new Congress the House must pass rules for how it will operate. As can be seen in the rules for this House, H.Res. 5, normal procedure is to say you are affirming the previous rules, but with amendments or changes that are then enumerated in the bill.

And it was by a change to the rules that the House declared federal lands to be worthless.

Is this how we want Congress to do things? Sneak momentous changes into the rules without a real debate?

Here is the exact language:

"In the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, for all purposes in the House, a provision in a bill or joint resolution, or in an amendment thereto or a conference report thereon, requiring or authorizing a conveyance of Federal land to a State, local government, or tribal entity shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays" (emphasis added).

In other words, the land is worth nothing.

It goes on to clarify that:

"The term 'conveyance' means any method, including sale, donation, or exchange, by which all or any portion of the right, title, and interest of the United States in and to Federal land is transferred to another entity. The term 'Federal land' means any land owned by the United States, including the surface estate, the subsurface estate, or any improvements thereon" (emphasis added) [p. 35].

I hope I'm wrong, but a plain reading suggests that no land owned by the U.S., the stuff on that land, or the stuff below the land (e.g. oil, minerals) is excluded. The Grand Canyon? The Lincoln Memorial? The White House? Even the Capitol itself?

For many special interests, what they want to get their hands on is the "subsurface estate," or the stuff below the land. They want the oil; they want the coal; they want the minerals. An oil rig on the White House lawn? Not out of the realm of possibility.

Proponents, including Rob Bishop (R-UT, 1st), Chair of the House Resources Committee, who had this change inserted in the rules, would be quick to point out that the land is being conveyed to state or local or tribal governments. They march under the banner of local control.

In practice, what this means is public lands – the birthright of every American – become less accessible, or even off limits as states sell them to private interests. Most states simply do not have the financial resources to care for them properly, and it becomes easier for special interests to get their hands on them. As the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership puts it:

"The national public lands transfer to the states would result in one likely outcome: the fire sale of these lands to the highest bidder – billionaires and foreign corporations who may neither understand nor value America's outdoor heritage. Once privatized, these lands will become off limits to most sportsmen in perpetuity."

And not just off limits to sportsmen and the rest of us, but exploited for private gain as they go after what is below the ground with oil wells and pipelines and mining operations.

As the character of Sir Thomas More says in A Man for All Seasons, "Some men think the earth is round, others think it flat. … If it is round, will the King's command flatten it?"

The House of Representatives has a great deal of political power. But it cannot make the world flat. Nor can they declare worthless what God created good. Some may treat it as worthless or worse; but nothing valued by God can be worthless. When we treat it as such we devalue ourselves; we become less than what God created us to be.

Therefore, as stewards and citizens we call on the House of Representatives to restore worth and dignity to our public lands by rescinding this change to the rules that treats them as worthless.

Mitch Hescox is the president of the Evangelical Environmental Network.

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