For perhaps the first time in modern history, government officials beyond the highest-ranking are household names in the United States. People who are not very involved in politics and invested in policy-making likely had no idea who was Administrator or Acting Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prior to the recently-resigned Scott Pruitt. And that’s OK; we elect people with the good faith that they will hire others to make good decisions on our behalf, and set our country on autopilot as we go about our busy lives. This is a fascinating time when politics have been brought into the spotlight in almost every sector, and conversations are popping up about who our elected officials are hiring and how good a job they are doing at representing our national best interests.
Many mountain bikers in the Western part of the US are aware of the threats facing their local trails. East of the Mississippi, we have less public land. Most of our trails are in private parks like Big Bear, where Dirt Fest West Virginia takes place, or in City, County, or State parks, so our conversations are more disassociated, even theoretical. However, public land is public land, regardless of where we call “HQ,” and it doesn’t feel right to know what is going on with land heists in Utah but not in our home state of Pennsylvania. “This land is our land” isn’t just a great song, it’s an American state of mind, a part of our identity and ideology. Plus, of course, we love visiting our friends around the country and riding their trails, which is to say, our trails. The people’s trails.
It is clear to anyone who has been paying moderate attention or watched a few episodes of VEEP that lobbyists are constantly in the ears of politicians, but as our representatives, they should be seeking out our voices for guidance over the clammer of corporate interest. Dirt Rag reached out to Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on helping people speak up about public lands, to talk with Executive Director Adam Cramer about what is happening and what interested people can do to help keep public lands public. This interview has been edited for length.
Dirt Rag: You’re in DC. Are there public lands in your neck of the woods that are being affected by this potential legislation or change of land governance, or are these threats really only for the West?
These lands belong to Americans. And if they were transferred to the state, we’d be losing something and not getting anything in return. And that, to us, seems like stealing.
Adam Cramer: Well, I’ll say this: Access is earned wherever you are, wherever you ride. You have to work together as a community to make sure you have it and build relationships with land managers and policymakers to take care of the trails. You have to be proactive wherever you live. But the threats to the West are different, systematic challenges than the ones facing the rest of the country. And it rises out of a couple of factors. One is that there’s a ton riding on public lands, on forest land, on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. And in every Western State besides California over the past few years, there has been legislative effort to demand the transfer of public lands to the state. And that would implicate all the tens of thousands of miles of riding on Forest Service land and BLM land. Now the challenge is that, in many states, State land is not public. You don’t have a right to be there or a say in how it’s managed. So even if you had, for example, some Forest Service land that was transferred over to the state of Colorado, as a mountain biker, kayaker, climber, or just as an American, you would lose rights in terms of being there and having a say and how they’re managed.
DR: And that’s so sneaky. In tone, it sounds at worst like a benign shifting of resources from federal to state. But it really shifts the whole dynamic of who has control over it. It’s a linguistic issue, because it seems like, [using Nevada as an example] “Now you own your land, you Nevadans are the people who control it.” But it’s no longer the Nevadans who do control it, it’s the Nevadan legislature.
AC: Yes, that’s really well put. With American land, wherever you live, it belongs to everybody. That’s a part of our American identity. It’s a unifying feature of the country, the culture. So beyond the pragmatic of who has title to the land, it’s an identity issue. Wherever you live, Pennsylvania, or Maryland where I live, or New Hampshire, you have the right to ride your bike in Colorado or Washington State and also have a say in how the public lands are managed. And that’s not to say State Parks don’t have a roll, and there are amazing state parks across the whole country, east and west, that have got incredible outdoor recreation resources. But that’s not really the issue.
DR: Are there other countries, or have there been other times in the US, where these control forfeitures have taken place, where what was once public has been privatized?
AC: There have been ongoing efforts to transfer modest parcels of public lands that make a ton of sense from a conservation standpoint. But these wholesale efforts are relatively new in terms of how broad they are. When [the states] do get land from the federal government, in the past, the thing that’s troubling is they have a pretty clear track record of selling land to private interest.
But let’s say the state does manage it in a way that prioritizes recreation and conservation, if you look at the history of what happens to transfers, especially in Nevada, the vast majority is developed or transferred. And it’s not that they’re malicious, necessarily. State government runs on a different cadence and with different considerations than the federal government. States, by and large, have to balance a budget. And in some cases, they need to balance their deficit, and if they have a lot of state land, it might make sense for some of them, at least on paper, to sell it if they’re in difficult financial straits. When you have a different setting, it opens the door to much more churn. Fundamentally, we talk about it as the Public Land Heist. These lands belong to Americans. And if they were transferred to the state, we’d be losing something and not getting anything in return. And that, to us, seems like stealing.
It’s not that this hasn’t happened before, But this is an interesting inflection point right now with how many states are entertaining this idea. The origin of the last few years has been with the state legislature, but what’s been interesting is to see how Congress, and to a degree the administration, to see how they’re responding to those overtures. What Congress has been doing in many cases has been not transferring the title to the land, but transferring control and entertaining policies that would keep the land public in name but in practice would privatize it. And there were efforts to transfer law enforcement to the county sheriff, away from forest service and BLM, transfer responsibility to figure out how to develop natural resources to the state and away from the public. And those threats, they’re not as theatrical as handing over all the land that the states have been demanding, but they are very sneaky, to use your term, and very problematic.
With American land, wherever you live, it belongs to everybody. That’s a part of our American identity. It’s a unifying feature of the country, the culture. So beyond the pragmatic of who has title to the land, it’s an identity issue.
DR: So what’s in it for the states? If public lands are part of our national wealth that we all share, what is the benefit? Why would a state want to own the land instead of wanting it to remain a national park?
AC: Most of the [National Park] acreage is managed under multiple uses, which is an idea to balance all the uses of public land: resource development, water, conservation, recreation. The state is able to look at things from its own perspective [if it owns the land]. It’s liberated to manage in a way that makes the most sense for the state, including selling it off. But the tricky thing is, that even though these public lands are within the state boundaries, they have never belonged to the state. The language they use is, “give us the land back.” It was never their land! If you really want to get down to it, if you’re giving it back to anybody, you should give it back to the First Nations people, American Indians.
Access is earned wherever you are, wherever you ride.
But having more latitude to develop areas within the state, having more control, I don’t fault states for being interested in that idea. That’s the way states run: they’ve got to meet their budgets, they have to develop jobs in ways that make the most sense for them. But again, it’s not a resource that belongs to those states or the people who live in those states, it belongs to all Americans.
DR: What does Outdoor Alliance do? How does your organization work to keep public lands public, keep National land National, Keep state land from being privatized? Do you buy up land ever? I suppose that goes against your mission.
AC: Well there is certainly a place for land trusts and we do work with a number of partner organizations who have or are land trusts. The Access Fund, for instance, will acquire parcels of land that have climbing resources on them and manage them for climbing. There’s a roll for it. Private land is important, it’s a critical part of the constellation of how the outdoors is configured in this country. So we’re certainly not against it. But in terms of what Outdoor Alliance does, we educate and empower the human-powered community to stand up and speak for itself, let them know what’s going on. Educate them on these shared dynamics; the implications are the same, [as are] the opportunities for the communities to be heard. And we do that through spatial analysis of where the human-powered resources are in the United States. And the fact is that they are, in the West, overwhelmingly on public lands. In the beginning, when we were first warned about this, we thought, “That doesn’t seem like a good idea but what’s the impact going to be? How’s this going to impact kayaking? How is this going to impact backcountry skiing? How’s this going to impact mountain biking?” And through our organizational resources, we were able to figure out, is this a problem or not, and then what can we do about it? What can the community do about it? How can they come together to share their sentiments about these issues and let policymakers know that transferring titles of these public lands certainly isn’t a good idea?
We empower people to speak up at the state level with state legislators, and with their policymakers in Congress. We analyze legislative proposals and policy ideas, we make them as relatable and relative to the community as we can, and we provide resources for the community to be able to speak up for itself and let their feelings and priorities be known to policymakers. What we found over the years is that that really, really works. When policymakers hear from their constituents, in many cases they listen. We’ve changed minds. It’s pretty wonderful to see.
DR: At a time when things feel so out of our control, it’s nice to hear from someone who’s seen first hand that the power really is in our control if we use it.
AC: There’s a quote, I’d struggle to attribute it, but it goes, “the world is ruled by those who show up.” When mountain bikers and climbers and backcountry skiers show up, their representatives listen. And as a broader effort, I think it was 2017, there was an effort to transfer 3.3 million acres of public land to the state. I think they called it “the disposal of public land.” There was such outrage, not just from our community but from [everyone who uses public land], this piece of legislation that had been bouncing around for so long in prior congresses was officially withdrawn. There is so much outrage over that concept, which is pretty cool.
DR: I saw that! Living in New Mexico, that protest brought out the most diversity I’ve ever seen at an action in Santa Fe. I was so moved to see such broad representation of people who care about public lands, from the Native communities and kids from the Indian School who were learning about their traditional methods and values, to Boy Scouts, to hunters and anglers, to outdoor athletes and recreationists, to hippies— everyone got together, regardless of party or affiliation, to stand up and stand together against the land grab.
AC: You’re absolutely right. It is an attribute of American identity, as evidenced by the spectrum of people and represented interests that showed up at that rally. It’s bigger than mountain biking, it’s bigger than kayaking, which is why it’s so wonderful.
DR: What is something our readers could do in their communities to get active and get others acted with them?
AC: Probably the easiest thing for people to do is to sign our Protect Public Lands petition. We partnered with tons of NGOs and industry leaders, you know from SRAM, Trek, and Yeti to Surf Rider and Outdoor Afro, Patagonia, North Face, to demand that public lands remain in public hands. It’s empowering for the advocates when they’re trying to make these demands or share these sentiments with policymakers, having those numbers, having those people from all across the country sign that petition is tremendously helpful. So sign that petition, be heard. We have the right in this country to petition the government, to have an opinion, and we try to make that as easy as possible.
Secondly, learn about your favorite place, the place that you ride. Who owns that place: is it a State Park, is it a County Park, is it Forest Service land? Develop an understanding as to who is the decision maker, who is the policymaker, who has a say over the places you love. Learn who these people are—they have names—and if there’s a local organization that helps you speak as part of a collective. Join your local mountain biking Club. Being organized is how you get stuff done in this country. Just having an awareness as to the nature of your favorite local place is great, and if you want extra credit, find a place that you like to visit and find out who’s in charge there as well.
Politicians in this country are accountable to the people who put them in office. And they’re open, generally, you know they want to hear what you think and what you feel. And whatever your politics are, have some compassion for the job that they have to do. If you’re a senator, you have to make decisions on behalf of a whole state. If you’re a congressperson you have to make decisions on behalf of a district, which is like 700,000 people. And that’s really hard! However smart you are, that’s a big map. So being able to show up and think about public lands with your public officials, whoever they are, whether it’s your governor or senator or congressperson, is tremendously effective and helps them do their job and set their own priorities. However you may differ on other issues, whatever your politics happen to be, sharing with your elected officials that public lands are important and meaningful to you is a big deal.
DR: It is taking me a minute to digest how [speaking with politicians] doesn’t have to be a preemptive argument but just a, “You represent me, thank you for representing me, this is how I feel. So if this situation happens, I want you to know that the people of my state, including myself, feel this way and we want things to stay how they are or we want things to shift in this direction.” Not waiting until the cake is in the oven to say that we hate cake.
AC: Yes! Exactly! How else are they supposed to know? They’re not magicians.
DR: It seems so simple, and I hate to say that I never really thought about that before because everything feels like such a fight. But it takes the pressure off us as citizens to go in fighting with these people who we feel have so much power, and it makes the pressure so much easier for them as well, to make decisions based on an informed guess of what would be best for their state instead of hoping they are pressing the right button that will get them more votes in the next election period. It seems like such an easy win for everything that I don’t think many people really think about.
AC: You’re right. And also, these elected officials have staff, and in many instances, they have staff whose singular responsibility is to deal with constituents and the letters that they write. It’s like a radio receiver.
DR: If each of our readers donated a dollar, or five dollars, what would that allow you to do?
AC: We are a really small NGO. One dollar each adds up to a lot of money for us. You know, our goal is outreach, empowering communities. Mountain bikers know their trails, know the outdoors, and can speak of it in a way that is really authentic and meaningful. And if you can bring that passion and that authenticity to the front, you’re able to move the needle. So our goal is to help broadcast those voices, and when we have additional resources, that’s where it’s invested. To educate, empower, and support the user community to speak up and demand what’s important to them.
Another thing is that we are made up of nine founding member organizations, and one of those is IMBA. [As a member], you’re part of a group that is helping us do our work, and you’re supporting an organization that’s got boots on the ground and can turn your sentiments about protecting the things that you like and make them geographically relevant to you. So being a member of IMBA or whatever outdoor pursuit you happen to have, whatever the relevant member organization is, that would be a great investment. If you support IMBA you support Outdoor Alliance, unambiguously, that is the truth.