Our public lands play a special role by protecting vital habitat for our country’s extraordinary wildlife. They bring visitors and tourism dollars from all over the world. They are part of our national identity, and they must not disappear.

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MULTIPLE times this year, Americans have come dangerously close to losing national treasures that belong to all of us.

Embedded in a fiscal relief package for Puerto Rico this spring was a provision to give away 3,100 acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. The proposal had nothing to do with the economic recovery of Puerto Rico. It had everything to do with extremist agendas in Congress and state legislatures that seek to grab national lands and turn them over to the states to be sold or leased.

Fortunately, after outcry from the Hispanic and conservation community, the provision was taken out of the bill.

This year alone, numerous efforts have emerged to dismantle our nation’s system of public lands, which include some of the finest forests, refuges, wetlands and desert ecosystems in the world. In the Northwest, Americans had a front-row seat to the opening act of this extremist playbook in January, when armed militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. Radicals vandalized a national gem that serves as a critical stopover for migratory birds and other wildlife and draws visitors from all over the globe.

Since then, the agenda to “reduce the federal estate” has gained ground in 19 states and in the halls of Congress, where numerous other bills have surfaced to seize America’s national heritage. Lawmakers seek to give these national treasures to cash-strapped states or territories, where they could be leased, drilled, logged or sold to eager buyers.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced a bill this summer that would permit construction of a road through a protected wilderness area in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska; the Interior Department rejected the proposed road in 2013.

Murkowski is also moving legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain — the biological heart of the refuge — to the full spectrum of oil and gas development. The Arctic Refuge is a vast, wilderness landscape of tundra plains, boreal forests, dramatic mountain peaks and coastal lagoons teeming with wildlife.

Both Izembek and Arctic refuges contain “globally significant” ecological, cultural, historical and native subsistence values.

Cattle graze near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
(Jarod Opperman/The New York Times)
Cattle graze near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (Jarod Opperman/The New York Times)

The Washington state Legislature has introduced multiple bills with the central goal of spending taxpayer money to “study” the disposal of our national public lands and give them to the state. Because Washington residents acknowledge the tremendous ecological, recreational and economic values of our accessible public lands, the two bills that surfaced in the 2015 legislative session were soundly defeated.

Elsewhere in the West, history reveals what happens to state-owned land: Since statehood, Idaho has sold or traded off more than 41 percent of its land base to private interests, such as Bunker Hill Mining, which left a toxic Superfund site that poisoned local schoolchildren. Other companies have purchased state land and now charge an annual fee for the public to enjoy them — that access can also be closed off at any time. Recreation on approximately 1.7 million acres of land has been lost forever to Idahoans and all Americans from these state land sales.

Unfortunately, these efforts, particularly those in the West, are not likely to end. Congressional opponents of federal lands have set up a “Federal Land Action Group,” chaired by U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, to promote the flawed idea that local communities would fare better if national lands were given to the states to manage.

From opponents of conservation, we hear over and over that the government can’t manage the land it already owns. Those words ring especially hollow when they come from the same members of Congress who deliberately underfund our parks and public lands and undermine community-driven, science-based efforts to manage them.

Recreation and trails programs draw Northwesterners into the outdoors an average of 56 days per year and churn $21.6 billion into Washington’s economy annually.”

Recreation and trails programs draw Northwesterners into the outdoors an average of 56 days per year and churn $21.6 billion into Washington’s economy annually. Yet these amenities suffer perpetual underfunding from Congress.

Anti-conservation lawmakers devise subtle ways to sabotage our public lands because they know that the American people prize these outdoor destinations. That’s why proponents of seizing America’s heritage often bury their takeover measures in large bills that Congress must pass or as “study bills” that intend to mask their intent with costly legislative busywork.

Recently, 11 Western states’ attorneys general endorsed a report stating that the agenda of seizing America’s shared forests, parks, refuges and other public lands has virtually no legal merit and is a waste of lawmakers’ critical time and taxpayers’ dollars.

Our national refuges, parks and forests are owned by all Americans. They inspire adventure and build confidence in our children. Located near high-density population centers like New York City, Seattle and Phoenix, many of our nation’s protected areas offer families the chance to explore wild nature and escape noise and distractions.

If Congress were to succeed in giving away just one of America’s natural treasures, would Seattle’s very own backyard wonderland — the 40-year-old Alpine Lakes Wilderness — be next? Or the Lewis and Clark Refuge in Oregon, which remains much as it was when the explorers first passed through in November 1805?

Our public lands play a special role by protecting vital habitat for our country’s extraordinary wildlife. They bring visitors and tourism dollars from all over the world. They are part of our national identity, and they must not disappear.