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Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan Want to Drill, Slash, and Sell Our Nation’s Public Lands

Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan Want to Drill, Slash, and Sell Our Nation’s Public Lands

Jessica Goad explains how the Republican candidates for the presidency and vice presidency of our nation would drill, slash, and sell our public lands to benefit a few well-connected businesses and individuals.

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The Romney-Ryan plan would let individual states be solely in charge of permitting controversial projects, such as coal mining 10 miles from Utah's Bryce Canyon. (AP/ John Biemer)
The Romney-Ryan plan would let individual states be solely in charge of permitting controversial projects, such as coal mining 10 miles from Utah's Bryce Canyon. (AP/ John Biemer)

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, told The Reno Gazette-Journal earlier this year that he doesn’t know “the purpose of ” public lands. Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt—who was an avid hunter and the father of American conservation—have realized the many purposes of public lands. They support our nation’s energy sector, provide clean air and clean water, and serve a critical role in preserving our heritage as a nation. Protecting parks, monuments, and other wilderness areas stimulates hundreds of thousands of jobs from recreation and tourism alone. Yet Gov. Romney apparently thinks our 700 million acres of federal public lands serve no obvious purpose.

So what are Gov. Romney’s and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI), policies on public lands? We examined the plans of the two candidates alongside their previous votes and policy positions, discovering that, for them, the purpose of public lands is:

  • More access for oil and gas drilling and less investment in cleaner alternative energy sources
  • The sale of public lands rather than further conservation for future enjoyment and job creation
  • Less public access to public lands due to ill-considered budget cuts rather than investments in our parks and wilderness areas to boost local economies and jobs

In short, the public lands policies of Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan would be disastrous for the 700 million acres of federal public lands that belong to all of us.

Much of the evidence for this analysis of the Republican ticket’s public lands policy agenda is derived from Rep. Ryan’s past votes as a member of Congress. But Gov. Romney’s vagueness and lack of understanding about public lands issues in general also provides a sense of where the campaign’s priorities do or do not lie.

It is clear that instead of putting public lands to work in support of a balanced energy strategy and conservation goals compatible with economic opportunity and the pursuit of happiness, the Republican candidates for the presidency and vice presidency of our nation would drill, slash, and sell our public lands to benefit a few well-connected businesses and individuals. In this issue brief, we detail these plans, beginning with energy and then moving to access, funding, and the sale of public lands.


Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan want fossil fuels to be the winners and want sources of renewable energy to be the losers in our nation’s future energy development. They want to preserve tax breaks for oil companies, slash clean energy investments, and promote vast amounts of new oil drilling. These energy priorities also extend to public lands, as can be seen through the campaign’s energy plan and Rep. Ryan’s past votes in Congress.

The campaign’s focus on expanding domestic oil and gas production seems particularly strange when put in context—under the Obama administration, fossil fuel production has been steady and growing on both private and public lands. For example, oil production from publicly owned lands and waters is higher now than it was in the final three years of the George W. Bush administration. Additionally, the Bureau of Land Management held three of its five largest-ever oil and gas lease sales in calendar year 2011.

Turning energy decisions over to the states

The energy plan released by the Romney campaign in late August proposes transferring decisions regarding energy development on public lands from the federal government to the states. This could result in much more drilling and mining on public lands while bypassing federal environmental and health protections because, as The New York Times put it, “States, as a rule, tend to be interested mainly in resource development.”

Troublingly, this portion of Gov. Romney’s plan is very vague when it comes to the integrity of national parks. It claims that energy decisions about “lands specially designated off-limits” will not be turned over to the states, but it is unclear about what precisely that means. It could indicate that places protected from development by current law such as national parks would be off limits. But it also could be interpreted to mean that only places chosen by a Romney-Ryan administration would be off limits, leaving the management of energy resources in national parks up to different states.

Giving states the authority to permit drilling or mining in or near national parks would also sidestep public comment procedures as required by the federal review process. This means that rather than involving the public in decisions about their lands, individual states would be solely in charge of permitting controversial projects near national parks such as uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, oil and gas drilling near Arches National Park in Utah, and coal mining 10 miles from that state’s picturesque Bryce Canyon.

This proposal prompted many citizens who value public lands to be concerned, including sportsmen. A columnist for Field and Stream, a popular outdoor activities magazine, recently wrote that:

When it comes to the future of public hunting and fishing—especially out West—fewer proposals could be more frightening.

Turning over federal land management decisions to the states proved too extreme even for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a conservative Republican. Earlier this year she vetoed a bill that would similarly transfer ownership of all the public lands in Arizona from the federal government to the state, explaining that she was “concerned about the lack of certainty this legislation could create for individuals holding existing leases on federal lands.” Various legal scholars also note that proposals to turn federal lands and their management over to the states are probably unconstitutional.

Reckless development in special places

Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan also want to promote reckless energy development and natural resource extraction in places that are valuable for recreational purposes, as well as their scenery and heritage. Here are several cases in point:

  • Rep. Ryan voted repeatedly—in 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2006—to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last best wildernesses on earth and home to abundant wildlife and recreation opportunities. These efforts passed in the House with close votes but later either failed in the Senate or were not included in conference agreements.
  • Rep. Ryan also voted to drastically increase careless and irresponsible logging and development of our forests during the 109th Congress in 2006. He voted for a bill that rolled back environmental laws in national forests, removed protections from roadless areas, and cut the public out of decisions regarding logging. The bill passed the House by a 243–182 margin.
  • An amendment to a budget bill in 2001 was designed to prevent the George W. Bush administration’s Department of the Interior from issuing new leases to drill and mine within national monuments. But Rep. Ryan voted against this provision, effectively throwing his weight behind drilling in national monuments. Despite Rep. Ryan’s vote, the provision passed (242–173) and was signed into law.

Favors to oil, gas, and mining companies

The energy policy history of Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan also is replete with past favors to corporations interested in exploiting our natural resources. For instance:

  • A number of Gov. Romney’s energy donors and campaign advisers boast stakes in companies that would directly benefit from more public lands being opened to development. Continental Resources, Inc., owned by Gov. Romney’s top energy advisor Harold Hamm, already drills on public lands in Montana and North Dakota. Oxbow Corporation owner Bill Koch, who has given at least $2 million to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, as well as millions to other conservative groups,operates the Elk Creek coal mine on public lands in Colorado.
  • Rep. Ryan voted yes on a bill in this session of Congress (H.R. 1904) that would transfer the world’s third-largest copper deposit—located on U.S. Forest Service lands—to the multinational mining companies Rio Tinto Group and BHP Billiton Ltd. Rather than properly compensate taxpayers for the lost value of the copper, the bill only provided for an exchange of land parcels while sidestepping an economic valuation of the copper for which taxpayers would not be reimbursed. The bill passed the House on a 235–186 vote.
  • Rep. Ryan is a co-sponsor of the Roadmap for America’s Energy Future (H.R. 909),a bill introduced in this session of Congress that includes a provision encouraging the development of oil shale, one of the dirtiest fuels known to mankind, on public lands.

Access to public lands

Public access is one of the greatest assets of our public lands. Rather than leaving the enjoyment of outdoor activities to the whims of private estates—as is the case in much of Europe—Americans have the privilege of being able to get outside in national parks, national forests, national monuments, and other areas that belong to the taxpayers. But Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan’s past votes and decisions show that they may not protect the places where Americans can hunt, fish, camp, and hike.

Keeping sportsmen from accessing public lands

While Gov. Romney stated on the campaign trail in 2007 that he has generally only hunted “small varmits,” Rep. Ryan is a serious sportsman, who has bagged his share of bucks and wild turkeys. Yet the two men share a policy agenda that would cause wide-ranging damage to the public lands that sportsmen treasure.

Rep. Ryan in particular endorsed a number of bills in Congress that could restrict the ability of the hunters and anglers to access public land:

  • First, he voted yes on the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act of 2012 (H.R. 4089), which, despite its misleading title, contained provisions that would degrade prime wildlife habitat. The bill allowed for motorized vehicles, roads, and other development within pristine wilderness areas, potentially driving game away and damaging opportunities for hunting. A Congressional Research Service analysis of the bill noted that it could conflict with the “stated purpose” of the 1964 Wilderness Act: keeping especially valuable wild places “untrammeled by man.” The sportsmen advocacy group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers stated that the legislation could “result in enormous negative consequences for world renowned hunting and fishing destinations.” The bill passed the House by a 274–146 margin.
  • Rep. Ryan also voted for The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act
  • (H.R. 1505), which would give the Department of Homeland Security “operational control” over federal public lands within 100 miles of the northern and southern U.S. borders. As such, the department could put up fences around, drive vehicles through, fly drones over, and otherwise intrude on the unspoiled lands and waters used by recreationists and sportsmen, thereby in effect restricting access to the land. An amendment to strike this provision from a larger package failedwith a vote of 177-247.
  • The vice presidential candidate’s most recent budget proposal, which Gov. Romney has backed, also endorses the idea of selling off public lands to the highest bidder, which might severely impact sportsmen. As a columnist at Outdoor Life magazine put it, “Without public lands, there’s a hell of a lot less public hunting.”

Blocking citizen proposals to protect special places

Along with impeding access to public lands, Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan want to stop the preservation of additional land for future generations to enjoy. While governor of Massachusetts, Romney did little to protect open space for the state’s citizens. More recently, Rep. Ryan attempted to stand in the way of citizen proposals to set aside the public’s favorite places. The ticket’s history of trying to hinder public proposals to protect and preserve public lands specifically includes:

  • The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility noted that in Massachusetts in 2006 the Romney administration protected the smallest amount of open space in the state of any year since 1991.
  • Rep. Ryan voted against the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which established three new national park units, a new national monument, and protected
  • 2 million acres of wilderness. He also voted against a similar bill in 2008. Both ultimately passed and enjoyed bipartisan support.
  • In the 110th Congress, Rep. Ryan voted against a bill that codified the National Landscape Conservation System, which is commonly referred to as the “crown jewels” of lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and includes places such as the California Coastal National Monument and the Pony Express National Historic Trail. It ended up passing, with a 278–140 vote.
  • Rep. Ryan voted in 2011 to take away the president’s authority to designate new national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906. This act has been used by 16 of 19 presidents (including President George W. Bush) to protect places such as the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.
  • President Bill Clinton designated a number of national monuments using the Antiquities Act during his presidency. But in 2000 Congress tried to prevent the administration from spending any funds on national monuments that had been designated since 1999, in effect blocking these monuments’ existence. This provision was part of a larger budget bill, and Rep. Ryan voted against an amendment that would have removed it from the bill.

Funding for public lands

Ensuring that our nation’s special places receive adequate funding for their upkeep, management, and repairs is a key component of protecting the great outdoors for future generations. Providing government agencies with the necessary financial resources allows them to properly oversee the elements that make visits to public lands enjoyable and safe—things such as law enforcement in parks, road and trail maintenance, and education programs.

Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan, however, are not at all friendly to discretionary spending on our parks, monuments, and public lands. Indeed, Rep. Ryan’s current budget includes a number of devastating cuts that would have major consequences to the number of visitors our public lands could accommodate and to the safe and proper management of our lands. Gov. Romney, though providing less detail, has proposed even further cuts to these and other nondefense programs than Rep. Ryan. Cuts that they have proposed include those to national parks, fighting fires, and important land acquisition programs.

  • In the most recent Ryan budget, overall allocations to environment and natural resources agencies would be cut by 14.8 percent from the already-low 2012 levels. The Democratic members and staff of the House Natural Resources Committee noted that this cut could result in the loss of 73,000 jobs in 2014 alone.
  • Funding for national parks could be slashed by $380 million starting in 2014 in the most recent Ryan budget. An analysis from the Office of Management and Budget determined that starting in 2014, hundreds of national park units “would have to shut down for parts of the year” if the Ryan budget were to pass.
  • The most recent Ryan budget proposes cuts to national forests of up to $678 million every year starting in 2014, endangering important programs such as fighting wildfires, sustaining clean drinking water, and supporting recreational activities such as hunting and fishing.
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund is one of the key tools used by federal, state, and local governments to acquire additional public wildlife habitat. Using receipts from offshore oil and gas drilling, the fund has supported tens of thousands of projects over its nearly 50-year existence. It has also enjoyed bipartisan support. But in February 2011 Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) offered an amendment to the H.R. 1 budget bill that would have almost entirely eliminated the fund, and Rep. Ryan voted for it.

Selling off public lands

The complaint that the federal government “owns” too much land is a common refrain, especially from Western Republicans. Although Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan both come from states with relatively small amounts of public lands, they nevertheless indulge this movement by proposing the sale of large portions of the public estate.

  • The official Republican Party platform—approved at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, in August—addressed the party’s support for privatizing public lands. It states that “Congress should reconsider whether parts of the federal government’s enormous landholdings and control of water in the West could be better used for ranching, mining, or forestry through private ownership.”
  • Rep. Ryan’s most recent budget includes a provision to sell off millions of acres of public lands without specifying how taxpayers would get a fair return for them. The plan cites as its inspiration a bill from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) to sell 3.3 million acres of land in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. The government already has a system in place to transfer existing public lands to willing buyers, a process which has worked in the past.


In Gov. Romney’s interview with The Reno Gazette-Journal, he was nonspecific when answering a question about whether he would sell public lands back to the states, saying that he “hadn’t studied it.” But then he added that, “Unless there’s a valid, and legitimate, and compelling governmental purpose, I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land.”

Public lands serve very important purposes to our nation. They create jobs, provide drinking water and clean air, and are the places where we go to get outside and play. The federal government manages nearly 700 million acres of public lands on behalf of all Americans, making it a uniquely American idea.

But based on their recently released energy plan, previous policy positions, and past congressional votes, it is clear that Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan have not prioritized protecting our natural resources and public lands for future generations. When it comes to energy, access, conservation funding, and selling off public lands, the two Republican nominees embrace a devastating view of the traditional American land ethic.

We can have both—a balanced energy policy and land conservation—but history shows that the Republican ticket not only will ignore such ideals but will also actively work to undermine our protected public lands.

Jessica Goad is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Public Lands Project.

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Jessica Goad

Research and Outreach Manager, Public Lands

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 (Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan)