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COLUMN: Make Public Lands Work for Local Communities

August 9, 2016
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

Theodore Roosevelt, who championed the cause of conservation during his presidency, once said, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful means, the generations that come after us.” We have a responsibility, not simply to preserve the natural world around us, but to improve the economic condition of the communities that depend on natural resources and access to public lands. Balancing the needs of preserving the environment with the needs of the people whose livelihoods depend on it should not be opposing goals.

Federal regulations have an outsized impact on the ability of ranchers, recreationists, farmers and local governments who live near federal lands to thrive. One of the most critical economic issues facing our rural communities in the West today is the fact that the federal government owns and manages an enormous amount of property - 640 million acres. In fact, about one third, or 29 percent, of the State of Washington is owned by the federal government. That comes to more than 12,176,000 acres of federally-owned lands in our state.

How does the massive scale of federal land ownership impact the ability of a rural community’s economy to grow? The key ingredients for local communities are healthy forests, a focus on economic growth, and local input in land management decisions. Unfortunately, many of our rural communities are struggling and know that their voices are not being heard by federal agencies. We have already tried the top-down approach of federal control, and it has resulted in catastrophic wildfires and frustrated our rural communities.

I am proud to be a cosponsor of the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, introduced by my colleague Rep. Raul Labrador.  This legislation is a pilot project for restoring responsibility for federal lands to local communities. This legislation would create “community forest demonstration areas” on up to two percent of lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service in order to generate dependable economic activity for counties and local governments containing National Forest System land. These pilot projects for sustainable forest management would allow state governors to form advisory committees comprised of members of the local communities with the most at stake: locally-elected officials, representatives of those with grazing or other permits, the timber industry, and recreational users. The advisory committee would put the focus of public lands where it belongs: squarely on our rural communities and their economic growth.

We all want the environment and the communities sustained by the environment to flourish. Increasing accessibility and local input in federal land management can improve the economic outlook of our rural communities for generations to come.