Public Lands and Public Health: How OUR lands impact OUR health

The public lands battle has been underestimated by lawmakers. When U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz (R) from Utah proposed H.R. 621, it’s apparent he underestimated the outdoor community. Hunters, anglers, hikers, and general outdoor enthusiasts came together to flood his inbox, Instagram, and phone lines opposing the bill that would transfer 3 million acres of federal lands to the states. When it comes to politics, I’ve often wondered how much of an impact we can really have on laws. Watching this unfold and being involved with the change really opened my eyes to what we can do if we all come together. There are two major threats to public lands: (1) Transfer to the states, and (2) Resource extraction. Both of which impact our health.

Background on the Public Lands Battle

In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took office as the 26th President of the United States. During his time as President, among other conservation efforts, he placed almost 230 million acres of land under federal ownership and made the open for use by the public. Around 150 million acres of these lands were made National Forests. He’s considered the father of conservation for this work alone.

Fast forward to recent years where politicians, like our friend Rep. Chaffetz, are trying to transfer these lands to the states. While transferring federal lands to state ownership and management sounds like a great idea, it’s not as great as it appears. Transferring federal lands to state ownership allows the state to sell lands to the highest bidder; whether that’s someone looking for their own piece of paradise or a company looking to develop or extract resources such as oil and gas. Additionally, should the state keep control of the lands, they are responsible for the bill should something happen, such as a wild fire. Considering the costs of all U.S. wildfires in 2017 was close to $2 billion, there is no state in our nation that could solely foot the bill without federal assistance. Further, in May of 2012 Michigan endured a wildfire in Duck Lake in Luce County. The fire took out 21,135 acres of land, creating a cost of close to 3.5 million dollars to fight the fire, and caused the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to go over their budget of $12.5 million to fight wildfires. For reference, in 2017, Montana saw over 1.2 million acres lost to wildfires. I’m not an economist or an accountant, but I’m fairly certain they would not be able to afford that bill if it were solely on them to pay.

Additionally, in states like Michigan there is a land cap; which means under state law, the state can only own so many acres of land. In Michigan, this applies to the northern half of the Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula. In Michigan’s case, the land cap is about 4.6 million acres of land. Any time the state owns more than 4.6 million acres of land, they have to sell some of it to private buyers. So, if all federal lands in Michigan (about 3 million acres worth) were transferred to state ownership, Michigan would own close to 7.6 million acres of land. That means Michigan would have to sell almost half of that land. HALF!

Public Lands and Physical Health

But what do all of those acres mean? If you think about how public lands impact health, physical activity comes to mind. Hiking, running, backpacking, canoeing, boating, fishing, hunting, climbing, etc. Michigan has over 880 miles of non-motorized trails, just in the state forests, as well as another 2,400 miles in rail trails, most of which is managed by divisions of the Department of Natural Resources. Additionally, Michigan’s portion of the North Country Trail is 1,150 miles. None of this includes the over 9,000 miles of Off-Road Vehicle trails that are open to hiking. With all of these potential miles that can be used to impact physical health, the mental and spiritual health aspects of public lands is just as fruitful. Photography, meditation, watching wildlife, camping, unplugging from the world for a while, etc.; the list for how public lands impact our physical, mental, and spiritual health is infinite.

Clean Water and Clean Air

Another thing to consider is what those acres of public lands have within them and how that impacts our health; notably, water. Michigan is known for the number of lakes we have (more than Minnesota!) as well as the number of rivers, creeks, and streams. By the numbers, Michigan has over 96,000 square miles of water, which means 41.5% of the state is water. That includes over 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, 38,000 square miles of Great Lakes waters, 11,000 lakes, 36,000 miles of rivers and streams, and 5.5 million acres of wetlands. Should lands these waters touch or run through be sold for development or opened for resource extraction, it will impact the air quality in the area, as well as the entire watershed. This in turn, can affect the quality and safety of someone’s drinking water. For instance, water from creeks, rivers, and lakes on National Forest Lands alone in the U.S. account for the drinking water to some 180 million Americans across 68,000 communities.

What Can You Do?

Step 1: Further educate you

rself on the public lands battle. Following various organizations, such as Keep It Public, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and the National Wildlife Federation. These organizations frequently post up-to-date news regarding public lands and clean water for the nation. Additionally, there are regional chapters and regional pages that are dedicated to the Great Lake states and Michigan.

Step 2: Support organizations. All of the aforementioned organizations are at the forefront of the public lands and clean water, clean air battles. Giving them support through a membership, or simply following their various social media pages can not only help them, can not only help them further their mission, but as mentioned can also better educate you on what’s happening in the world of public lands. You can also show support when buying gear through companies who also support public lands, such as FirstLite, Patagonia, Orvis, SuperFeet, New Balance, and a long list of others.

Step 3: Contact your representatives and senators. As I said at the beginning, our voice matters. Writing, calling, sharing, posting, and tagging, your representatives and senators can greatly impact their decisions. SOPHE has almost 4,000 members, with Great Lakes SOPHE providing over 60 of those of those members, representing dozens of organizations. Our reach is longer and our voices are louder than we think.

Michigan is abounding with public lands and public waters that are open for our use to hike, camp, photograph, hunt, and fish. Let’s use them, protect them, and advocate for them for the betterment of our own, and our state’s public health.