In Defense of Public Lands

This column from MUCC Executive Director Dan Eichinger appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Michigan OutofDoors Magazine, which you can subscribe to by clicking here.
11029559_10152604201036813_2589220700703722316_nThe debate about the value of public land continues unabated in Lansing these days, much to my amazement.  While decrying the public’s ownership of land for its recreation is a handy talking point for some folks in the legislature and elsewhere on this issue, hunters, trappers, and anglers, along with most other outdoor recreationists, need to pay particular attention to this debate.
For starters, publicly available recreation land is the essential ingredient necessary for preserving the democracy of hunting, fishing, and trapping.  It is shameful to think that hunting, fishing, and trapping would become the province of the rich, available only to those with the means to acquire private land.  We cannot simultaneously support the expansion of our outdoor heritage through investment in recruitment and retention efforts and hold a fire sale on the very land upon which we depend to practice it.
This is not to suggest that the strategic divestment of certain parcels, meeting specific criteria shouldn’t happen.  It does.  In fact, it has happened right along, these many years, contrary to commonly held belief.  But strategic divestment and ensuring that the public is duly compensated for the loss of our land doesn’t happen at gun point, which is the position our DNR finds itself in so often on these matters.
Part of this debate is fueled by local government who view publicly owned land as a drain on potential tax revenue.  Predictably, those local officials have found many sympathetic ears among the legislature who are driving to sell off public land as a way to bring more revenues in to local units of government.  Of course, this whole debate about public ownership of land started round about the time the political folk in Lansing started to gut revenue sharing to local governments, in the first decade of this century.  And, instead of addressing that, the most direct cause of the local revenue problem, we are demonizing the public’s land footprint.  And while the cause-effect relationship is an intellectual fraud, it is nonetheless a real threat to public recreation.
Another argument being made to justify selling off public land is this notion that state needs to take care of what it has.  Well, we hunters, anglers, and trappers started paying more for our hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses last year.  A goodly portion of that new revenue is designed to enhance the management of public lands for fish, wildlife, and fur-bearers.  This of course begs the question of why the legislature is asking us to pay more if it is their intention to give us less in return.  That too feels like a fraud.
We constantly hear about how government needs to operate more like a business, and on this point I certainly agree.  When people say that, you would rightfully assume that they mean government should seek to negotiate the most favorable terms, maximizing potential return, and failing the opportunity to achieve them, would walk away from the table.
Instead, what the utterers of this notion of mean is that government should capitulate the interests of the people, in the fastest possible way and tilt the negotiation in favor of whomever is asking for the deal, regardless of how rotten it may be.  And if they don’t, the legislature is ready to swoop in and force the sale anyway.  I may have had to take Economics 201 twice in college, but even I know that’s not how the free market was intended to work.  You can’t claim to be a free market capitalist and then rig the rules so that government undercuts the market to serve some fleeting promise of a job that might come down the pike 30 years from now.
Outdoor recreation is an economic force in this state, and the pages of this magazine will be devoted in part to helping to bring greater attention to that fact.  And by that I mean hunting, fishing, and trapping.  If we hope to have an honest debate about the value of public land, we ought to know more about what that value is.  Better understanding that value would be time and energy well spent from policy makers in Lansing.  Indeed they could surprise us all by arming themselves with a fact or two to accompany the litany of talking points they trot out regularly on this issue.  At the end of the day, I suspect that selling public land to ostensibly benefit economic development is akin to burning dollar bills in the furnace of your penny factory, the very definition of pennywise and pound foolish.

I’ll see you in the field and on the water.

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