Who are America’s public lands for? The answer to that question might seem self-evident: the public. The newly confirmed interior secretary, David Bernhardt – officially charged with stewarding them – has a different interpretation. A lawyer and longtime energy lobbyist, he has shuffled between posts on K Street and in the federal government with one goal in mind: handing as much of that land as possible over to corporations, particularly his friends and clients in the oil and gas industry eager to snap up new leases for mining and drilling.
It’s why they were ecstatic when he took over as ousted secretary Ryan Zinke’s second-in-command. Dan Naatz, the political director of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, assured a gathering of 100 oil executives in June 2017 that “we know him very well, and we have direct access to him, have conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access to endangered species, to a lot of issues”. Dutifully, he’s expedited the environmental review process for fossil fuel developers hoping to build on public lands. Bernhardt made plenty of other corporate interests happy too, finishing up the work he began as a lobbyist for industrial farmers to weaken Endangered Species Act protections.
It may not come as a total surprise, then, that – just days after taking over Zinke’s old job – Bernhardt is now under investigation by his department’s Office of the Inspector General over conflicts of interests during his time as deputy secretary.
A long-dead Hungarian political economist tried to warn us about people like Bernhardt and the interests he represents. For Karl Polanyi, making land (along with labor and money) subject to the whims of the market threatens to throw society out of whack, dubbing them “fictitious commodities”.
“To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment,” he wrote, “would result in the demolition of society.” As Polanyi argued, too, the so-called free market Bernhardt and other rightwingers are so keen to support is dependent on a tremendous amount of active government intervention, and indeed contingent on people like him pulling levers with not so invisible hands at places like the interior department, to deliver as many handouts as possible to his friends in industry. There’s nothing natural about that, or about the $20bn in state and federal subsidies oil and gas companies get each year from the government.
It’s worth noting that protecting public lands has never been the wholesale mission of the Department of Interior, whose Bureau of Land Management was created to help mining, lumber and ranching companies gain access to them; other bodies within it are more explicitly focused on environmental protection. But there are now competing visions of how to redefine what stewardship means in an era of climate change, in a bid to prevent the kind of demolition Polanyi sounded the alarm on.
The Massachusetts senator and 2020 hopeful Elizabeth Warren this week released an ambitious plan to protect public lands from corporations, and “preserve wild, natural places for future generations” to make them “part of the climate solution – not the problem”.
About quarter of America’s land area, fossil fuel extraction on public lands are responsible for about 25 % of the country’s fossil fuel emissions. Warren wants a “total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases, including for drilling offshore and on public lands”, a position the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has also supported. She also hopes to strengthen environmental protections on public lands, get a full 10% of the country’s electricity from renewables built on public lands and offshore, make national parks free, democratize decision-making on how public land is used and revive the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, to “create job opportunities for thousands of young Americans caring for our natural resources and public lands, deepening their lifelong relationship with the great outdoors”.
We’ve arguably got too little public land, not too much, as Bernhardt sees it. Places around the world have decommodified large chunks of their housing stock with rousing success – for renters and the environment. Proposals like Warren’s can help make sure that our public lands really are that: public.