Hikers don’t know what they’ve got until it’s gone

Congress could wipe out Arizona’s hiking scene

ASU's hiking culture is under a stealthy attack from Utah's members of Congress. If students don't act soon, federal land transfers to the states could wreak havoc on Western states' hiking culture.

Students like anthropology senior Ana Sanchez know the value of a good hiking trail. When it comes to finding school-life balance, hiking ranks as one of the best — and cheapest — activities available to the ASU community.

“It gives me time away from my work to have an avenue to work out my stress,” Sanchez said.

Particularly for students arriving from out East, the sheer number of excellent trails available near campus is astounding. That’s in part because farther eastern states, like my native Indiana, are significantly more privately owned.

In the western states, federal agencies own from 29.9 percent to 84.5 percent of the land, which is significantly more than in states which were settled during the Homestead Act era and before. Federal land means public land, and that idea has turned into a push to make these lands — ranging from Grand Canyon National Park to Tonto National Forest to the now defunct PHX Renews community garden on Central Avenue — into publicly accessible spaces.

While urbanite campus-dwellers appreciate the presence of pristine wilderness areas, a small minority of western state populations has decided that programs benefiting every American go against their alleged fundamental rights to cattle grazing areas.

In the 1970s and 1980s, this provoked a movement of wealthy landowners known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, demanding that the federal government provide lands to ranchers and privatize national property. Federal land protection significantly slowed down over time, making it harder for politicians like the previous Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to find compromises to permanently protect federal lands from the aggressive suburban growth endemic to the Southwest.

Extremist ranchers lost power in the face of rapid urbanization, however, until recently, when the Sagebrush Rebellion showed not even a more mature West is prone to the federal equivalent of extreme acne.

Families like that of Cliven Bundy have decided that they would push to remove public access to national lands because they were upset their cows couldn’t graze on lands they didn’t own.

These aren’t poor farmers. They’re wealthy ranchers with powerful lobbyists, and so powerful politicians like Utah’s Representative Jason Chaffetz have launched headlong into an effort to protect land-hungry ranchers at the expense of every other American that enjoys access to public land.

Chaffetz and his sympathizers have launched headlong into a massive plan to transfer federal lands to the states. While this sounds like a better method for local control, states have had difficulty taking lands over in the past, leading to rapid transfers to the highest bidders.

This kind of land privatization won’t only harm access to land. It also will cost taxpayers money.

Utah’s Representative Rob Bishop has requested $50 million to investigate and start transferring lands to state ownership, already putting into place the first steps of federal privatization.

While healthcare policy and arts funding remain the foci of recent fights over the budget, federal land policy is largely managing to escape scrutiny.

If students can’t bring a fight against land transfers, public lands will be transferred while the rest of the nation looks on. Federal land is a resource that ASU takes advantage of constantly, allowing the community to take it for granted.

Federal lands have kept much of Arizona pristine and allowed for recreational uses of land that give ASU students the chance to enjoy the state untouched. If students don’t stand up for Arizona’s public lands, they won’t be around for much longer.

It’s time to get invested in federal land policy before the trailheads are taken off the map.

Reach the columnist at benjamin.steele@asu.edu or follow @blsteele17 on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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