Quiz time! Without looking it up on your smartphone, rank the following three industry sectors in order of their overall contribution to U.S. consumer spending:
- Outdoor recreation
If the list looks right to you as is . . . well, you’ve got it exactly backwards. (You’re not alone; I got it wrong too.) The $887 billion outdoor recreation industry accounts for more consumer spending than the pharmaceutical and gasoline/fuel sectors combined. It’s really, really big, in other words, right behind the financial services and insurance sector. Its various components—from fishing-tackle companies to tour guides to boatbuilders to outfitters and everything in between—employ 7.6 million people and provide more than $65 billion annually in federal tax revenue.
And since “outdoors enthusiast” is such a catchall term, covering everyone from hunters and fishermen to backpackers and scuba divers, the group is as politically and geographically diverse as it is large. The tens of millions of Americans who fit under the banner live in all parts of the country and subscribe to all types of political philosophies. In truth, they may have very little in common with one another, save for two things: They revere nature, and they value lands (and waters) that are pristine, protected, and public.
Right now, a lot of these people are angry and worried. President Trump and his secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, already plan to shrink and exploit some national monuments. Though their actions will be vigorously challenged in court, the Trump administration is counting on political cover provided by states and congressional representatives who are salivating at the prospect of gaining control of these protected lands and selling them off, parcel by parcel, to the highest bidders.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is especially concerned. Founded in 2002, the partnership comprises nearly 60 groups that run the gamut from conservative to liberal—“from Ducks Unlimited to the AFL-CIO,” says Whit Fosburgh, the president and CEO. By his estimation, “we probably have the ability to reach about 20 million individuals” who passionately share his organization’s goal of “guaranteeing all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.”
Why are they angry? “We don’t believe that presidents have the authority to go back and monkey around with [the designations of] past ones, other than by making the most minor management changes,” says Fosburgh. He worries, with good reason, that the states can’t afford to manage these lands. “Every single western state was given land when it entered the nation, and these states were free to choose what they would do with it,” he says. “As of today, about half of that land has been sold off. So it’s not a hypothetical question. It’s happened. It’s been happening for a hundred years. And it will continue to happen.”
The problem may lie in how differently federal and state governments view the land. “Most states, especially the western ones, manage state lands in order to maximize profits,” Fosburgh says. And when a state starts thinking of its land as a revenue stream instead of a public asset, it typically goes from being multiple-use to single-use—and from open and accessible to closed off. He cites the saga of Oregon’s Elliott State Forest as an example. This beloved state-managed land was almost lost forever to the people of Oregon by lawmakers who wanted to sell its 82,000 acres to a timber company. Public outcry eventually killed the deal earlier this year.
The particulars of the Elliott State Forest story underscore a big reason why Fosburgh and his colleagues want the federal government to hold on to and protect America’s public lands rather than give them to the states under the ideological banner of devolution. Those Oregon lawmakers weren’t necessarily being greedy; many of them believed they had no choice but to sell the forest. This is because most states are required by their constitutions to balance their budgets. “Every year, they’ve got to do it,” says Fosburgh. “But let’s say you’ve done your budgeting in Wyoming, and in doing so you assumed that oil was going to be a hundred dollars a barrel. Then, lo and behold, it’s fifty dollars a barrel. You suddenly have a choice: You can either raise taxes, or you can sell an asset.” In conservative western states, the legislatures usually choose the latter.
It remains to be seen whether the 20 million hunters, anglers, campers, and other outdoors enthusiasts that Fosburgh’s group represents can persuade Zinke and Trump to reconsider the political wisdom of messing with national monuments and other federally protected lands. But he’s hopeful. “We’re in a decent position, because they [the administration] profess to care about what sportsmen think. While they’ve been openly hostile to the traditional environmental community, they say that they like our community and that preserving hunting and fishing as a way of life is important to their policies.”
In forgivable defiance of the organization’s namesake, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership isn’t speaking softly. Currently, their website is positively buzzing with action alerts, polls, petitions, and other means of public engagement, all of them designed to inspire lovers of the outdoors to pressure an administration “whose actions aren’t matching their rhetoric,” as Fosburgh puts it.
The president and his interior secretary would be foolish to ignore them.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.