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Why the West’s Public Lands Battle is Important to Tennessee

Morning Jog by Drew Senter, taken at Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By Michael Butler, CEO of Tennessee Wildlife Federation

If you love the outdoors, use our public lands, or appreciate the role these habitats play in supporting wildlife, you need to be aware of a nationwide, multi-year campaign to transfer federal public lands to states and private hands. It is an issue that is already negatively impacting Tennessee and has the potential to gain more momentum.

Our nation has many different types of public lands that serve many different purposes; however, the anti-public lands campaign rarely distinguishes between them. As a result, this effort is aimed at our national forests, national monuments, national recreation areas, Bureau of Land Management lands, and other public land designations that make up our network of publicly-owned resources.

The epicenter of the anti-public lands campaign is in Utah and is championed by Congressman Rob Bishop. The ripples of this push are strongly felt in the West because of the larger federal public land holdings in those states, most of which were reserved by the federal government when these states joined the union via their enabling legislation (i.e., they were never state property).

To be sure, some of the arguments the anti-public lands campaign makes are significant problems that Tennessee Wildlife Federation believes must be addressed. For example, the issues of public access and adequate management of federal public lands plague lands in Tennessee. These types of problems disproportionately and negatively impact local citizens and users of these lands.


But Tennessee Wildlife Federation clearly and strongly disagrees with Congressman Bishop and others who propose a solution calling for transferring federal public lands to the states and/or creating unreasonable national monument rollbacks. These proposals do not solve these problems. If anything, they make them worse. There are clear and numerous examples of how federal lands, when transferred to states, are sold to private interests as a revenue generating exercise. The result is lands and wildlife become permanently off-limits to the public, or these lands are designated for a particular use that excludes many of the other uses that make them so valuable to local rural economies.

Because of the distance and differences between Western states and Tennessee, it is easy to think about this as a Western-only issue. But nationwide decisions will be made with the input of our U.S. Senators and Congressmen, and this Western idea is now cropping up in the Tennessee General Assembly.

American Lands Council (ALC) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are the private-sector champions of the anti-public lands campaign and its philosophies. Together, they represent a highly effective tool that influences members of state legislatures across our country, including some of our own.

As Tennessee legislators have participated in these organizations, we have seen an increase in anti-public lands thinking and actions. Here are three examples that illustrate how these philosophies are no longer just a Western fight, as well as foreshadow the fate of federal lands transferred to states.

# 1: Tennessee General Assembly Resolution Calls for Western Federal Public Lands Transfer

In 2015, State Representative Andy Holt (District 76) introduced, and subsequently passed, House Joint Resolution 92, which was signed by Governor Bill Haslam. Though not legally binding, it does establish a formal policy position for the State of Tennessee, and it makes clear the reach of anti-public lands ideals. The resolution calls for several actions by the Tennessee General Assembly, including:

  • Call on the federal government to transfer ownership of all Western federal public lands to the states, with the exception of military grounds, National Parks, and National Wildernesses.
  • Urge the United States Congress to engage in good faith communication, cooperation, and consultation with the Western states to coordinate the transfer of the public lands.
  • Urge that if any public land is sold to private owners, 95 percent of the proceeds be used to pay down the federal debt.
  • Call on other states to pass a similar resolution in support of the transfer of federal public lands to the Western states.

Great Horned Owl at Shiloh National Military Park by Terry Weaver

Western anti-public lands advocates waived this resolution around like a Gadsden flag when learning it was signed by our governor.

Suffice it to say, this resolution would never have been considered if not for the effort of ALC and ALEC to influence members of the Tennessee General Assembly to manufacture support for transferring federal public lands to states.

# 2: Allowing Defacto Privatization of Our Public TVA Waters

Let us not forget our public waterways. For decades, privately owned floating homes have sat on public TVA reservoirs—today there are approximately 1,800 homes. Roughly half were constructed in violation of existing TVA rules, making them squatters that illegally moored their private floating homes on public waterways. There were even proposals to construct floating subdivisions on some of our more important public reservoirs.

These new, largescale development proposals caught TVA’s attention, which started a process of tightening rules for these structures. After considerable study and public input, TVA issued a rule seeking to prevent new homes from being erected and to remove existing structures over the span of 30 years.

The anti-public lands mentality taking root in Tennessee came front and center.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Drew Senter

U.S. Congressman John Duncan (R-TN), who is Vice Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, worked with Freedom Caucus Chairman, U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC), to craft an amendment to the Water Resources Development Act that negated TVA’s rule. It effectively prevented TVA from protecting the public character of the public waters it is responsible for managing.

In this example, the public lost access to a resource that they still technically own. Floating homes will persist on our public waterways for decades to come, effectively allowing the defacto privatization of our public waters.

# 3: Penny-wise and Pound-foolish

A narrative making the rounds with several members of the Tennessee General Assembly is that we, as a state, have more public lands that we can adequately manage. This is a short-sighted view in our opinion that belies the reality that our policy makers:

  • do not see the demands being placed on our existing public lands,
  • do not fully appreciate the red-tape surrounding efforts to manage federal public lands,
  • and largely do not understand the overwhelmingly strong public support for public lands and their expansion in certain areas.

Overlay these views with our state’s natural resource agencies, where stagnant funding levels require them to face the day-to-day financial realities of public lands management, and you begin to see a perfect storm that reflects an overall lack of leadership within government around these issues.

A lack of funding is not the problem, it is a symptom. With Tennessee experiencing a record budget surplus, funding is available for reasonable and prudent investments in public lands in order to meet the needs and desires of the public, as well as to conserve special natural resource areas. It is a straightforward and compelling need.

Sweetness by Emily Hughes Tanner taken at Shiloh National Park

In the view of Tennessee Wildlife Federation, the greatest challenge regarding this topic is the disconnect between those elected to represent our citizens and the citizens who desire to have access to our great outdoors.

Remarkably, even though all agree our existing public lands are state and national treasures that provide significant worth, Congress recently took steps to place our federal public land’s value at $0. With this change, when discussions of transfers or sales take place, the obvious loss of these assets is not factored into the decision. This limited view of the value of these lands makes it easy to see them only as a liability to be liquidated.

These ideas and philosophies are why in 2016 a private citizen who sought to sell their property to the state for conservation purposes was almost derailed by a handful Tennessee General Assembly legislators.

The Bigger Picture

The foresight of our past leaders, both public and private, to create and maintain public lands and waters across our great nation is one of America’s greatest ideas. The economic value of these public resources is undeniable and significant, particularly to rural America. Their social value to the millions of Americans who use them to hunt, fish, hike, camp, graze, and provide places that allow us to renew our minds and spirits is unmeasurable.

Cedar Waxwing by John Ray taken at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The track record of state governments is clear. When states are given federal public lands, they sell them—permanently shutting off access and the many public benefits they provided our country. Because of this, it is our view that the anti-public lands campaign, including groups like ALC and ALEC, promotes policies that directly conflict with the best interests of Tennesseans.

Tennessee is roughly 10 percent public lands, encompassing many different federal and state agencies and many different uses. With the population growth occurring across our state, our public spaces are becoming more valuable, not less. And the demand for the services they provide is increasing. This is why we feel strongly that the solution is to appropriately manage and provide access to our public lands, not sell them.

The time is at hand for a renewed commitment to our public lands, their management, and use—not for their transfer and possible sale.

What is happening in the West has taken root in Tennessee. As Tennesseans, we cannot allow this erosion of importance and purpose of public lands to occur.

Join Tennessee Wildlife Federation in ensuring that our values surrounding public lands are not diminished by those we elect to represent us in the Tennessee General Assembly and the U.S. Congress.

3 replies
  1. Mike Mobley says:

    While I agree with everything said regarding the public lands out west and even those in the east, it is difficult for me to feel any sorrow for the TVA. Having a farm with an easement for a TVA power line across it has given me great insight into the abuse of power a federal agency will exercise over a land owner. While you may own and pay taxes on the land, TVA will tell you what you can and cannot do on your land. In addition, they will trespass at their will on your land, take your gates off the hinges and leave them laying on the ground, drive tractors thru your fences, cut your trees down and leave them laying in your fields, and threaten to destroy your neighbors fences when you catch them trespassing. I support the effort to maintain Federal lands as Federal lands but do not support the taking of any lands by the government unless the owners are willing to sell. In addition I support the passage of laws that would provide severe penalties for those that act as noted above.


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