An important national debate is playing out in Hartford right now as the Connecticut General Assembly is currently considering a state Constitutional Amendment about the future of the Connecticut’s public lands. S.J. 39 would prevent the state from transferring, swapping, or selling state-owned lands without appropriate public input — and if it passes, it will further demonstrate Connecticut’s long history of valuing our parks, wildlife areas, waterbodies, and open spaces.
By passing S.J.39, the Connecticut legislature has an opportunity to stand up for all of us who enjoy and admire our local, state, and federal public lands. We at the National Wildlife Federation are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our state affiliate and partner, the Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CFPA), to conserve Connecticut’s open spaces and expand recreational opportunities. CFPA works with private landowners to provide access to the Blue-Blazed Hiking Trail System and to improve the forest management and conservation practices of these landowners.
In a state with lands that are almost completely privately owned, the dedication of private individuals to conservation is commendable, but healthy wildlife populations and opportunities for outdoor recreation still depend on irreplaceable lands, like state parks and forests. Every acre of conserved land, both public and private, is of immense value to the state.
The importance of Connecticut’s public lands goes beyond wildlife and conservation. Outdoor recreation in Connecticut is a huge economic engine — bringing in money from hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, paddling, birding, and other sports. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, more than 60 percent of Connecticut residents participate in outdoor recreation every year. When combined with visitors from out-of-state, outdoor recreation generates $6.9 billion in annual consumer spending and supports 71,000 jobs. State Forests and State Parks alone generate $1 billion in economic activity and support 9,000 jobs.
The benefits of state lands extend well beyond their borders. Protected forests enhance air and water quality, which in turn enhance the quality of life of nearby and downstream neighbors. Many Americans dream of visiting the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, but too many are never afforded the opportunity to do so. State lands provide opportunities for people to hunt, fish, hike, camp, and enjoy the outdoors right in their own backyards. America’s parks remain our country’s greatest and most treasured idea because of what they provide for everyone, of all political persuasions and all walks of life.
Although public land issues are frequently associated with Western states, if Connecticut passed this amendment it would join Northeastern states Maine, Massachusetts, and New York in establishing policies that focus on state lands. The amendment will require public input and a two-thirds vote from the state House and Senate, but does not prevent state lands from being conveyed.
The fight for the future of public lands is ranging all over the nation. Recently, tens of thousands of camouflage-clad hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts descended upon statehouses across the West, led by the state affiliates of the National Wildlife Federation and other conservation organizations, to fight back against state and federal measures attempting to sell off public lands. These politically diverse protests showed that attitudes towards public lands do not conform to party lines.
While politically-active public lands movements are emerging all across the country, we encourage thousands of great conservationists across Connecticut to engage on S.J. 39 and ensure that lawmakers know that there will be a political cost to secretly transferring or selling off state-owned lands.
Connecticut’s outdoor heritage is worth fighting to protect — for ourselves and future generations, because once state-owned lands are given away, they are lost forever. Unlike other policy decisions, these choices cannot simply be undone by future politicians. After S.J.39 passes, the next step will be putting it on a ballot for public consideration. Once this happens, public engagement and the support of Nutmeggers will determine whether it passes. We hope that you will join with the members of the National Wildlife Federation and CFPA and call or email lawmakers and urge them to stand up for Connecticut’s natural resources, our tourism economy, and our outdoor heritage.
Collin O’Mara is President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.