For so many of us in the West, experiences such as getting lost in the beauty of a mountain vista or being made new by a clear-running river reflecting diamond sparkles of sunshine are among the prime reasons we live here. These are places where one can feel the spirit and become connected to God’s creation. And often we have set aside these places, including irreplaceable treasures such as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park, as protected public lands for all Americans to enjoy.
As we experience the wonder of nature and a peace that exceeds all understanding, we realize a moral obligation to perpetuate that joy for our loved ones, our children and grandchildren, and all those who will inherit this legacy of America the beautiful.
But I see an attempt that, while perpetuated by only a few extremists, could threaten our most sacred places in the great outdoors. These few are opposed to federally managed public lands and are calling on Congress to pass legislation requiring the federal government to transfer certain federally controlled public lands to states.
This would be a pivotal, likely disastrous, shift — particularly in the West, which contains more than half of U.S. federal lands open for public recreation access.
Such a transfer would clear the way for selling public lands to the highest bidder and would place some of America’s most iconic landscapes at risk. Studies show that states simply do not have sufficient budgets to manage the lands, which would result in greatly reduced public access as the land inevitably became privatized. America almost surely would lose access to revered outdoor treasures and, moreover, cut off access for future generations.
As we go through this 2016 election cycle, I hear very little on this issue from the presidential candidates. Presidential debate moderators just aren’t asking key questions about the candidates’ positions on the management of our parks and public lands, even when many pundits say at this point that Western voters will determine the election.
Polls reveal that few things are of more concern to Western voters than our love for the great outdoors. According to the recent Winning the West Poll released by the Center for Western Priorities, candidates working to “win the West” in Nevada should focus on the importance of protecting public land and improving access while stressing public land’s direct link to Nevada’s economy. In fact, more than 70 percent of Nevadans support designating a national monument to permanently protect the desert beauty and cultural history at Gold Butte.
Hispanics are now arguably the most important group for candidates among Western voters, and 94 percent of Nevada Hispanics agree that the outdoor spaces that make up our public lands are an important part of what makes Nevada a good place to live. Also, 91 percent find that public lands are an important part of the state’s economy.
With Nevada nearly 30 percent Hispanic, addressing these preferences should be top of mind for the presidential candidates. Yet, is it possible that no questions reflecting the importance of public lands policy for Westerners will be asked at today’s presidential debate in Las Vegas.
As a member of Por La Creacion Faith-based Alliance, I believe we all have a moral responsibility to protect the nation’s public lands — our parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other conservation areas — for all Americans, both present and future.
I believe this sense of responsibility is of great importance to most Westerners, and they realize who we elect Nov. 8 matters a great deal in how we protect public lands.
If the candidates — and the debate moderators — are paying attention, they will know that access to and protection of our precious public lands is part of our DNA, and that the candidates’ plans to protect them must be on the agenda tonight.
Juan Almanza is pastor of Centro de Adoracion Familiar in Las Vegas.
This post originally ran on the Hispanic Access Foundation website, and can be found at: https://hispanicaccess.org/news/las-vegas-sun-tonight-candidates-should-address-management-west-s-public-lands/oct-2016.
Hispanic Access Foundation is a Latino Conservation Alliance member.