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Public lands, private profit

In August, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke gave President Trump his review of all the large national monuments declared since 1996, a review required by an executive order signed last April. Zinke traveled to many monuments, speaking to a few local groups but mostly to politicians and energy executives. Ultimately, he recommended reductions to four national monuments including Bears Ears, in southern Utah, whose territory he believes should be cut from 1.35 million acres to 160,000 acres. Along the way, Zinke and allies ignored and belittled Native American activists.

The Trump Presidency began with him donating his first quarter salary, just over $78,000, to the National Park Service (NPS). Meanwhile, his proposed budget aimed to reduce the Department of the Interior’s funding by 12%, despite a deferred maintenance backlog of $25 billion for the NPS alone. Simultaneously, Congress used the Congressional Review Act to eliminate the Bureau of Land Management’s new planning system, known as Planning 2.0. By signing the repeal, Trump keeps in place badly outdated planning procedures under the guise of local control.

Although no signature legislation has passed, President Trump and his congressional allies have already made several consequential changes, notably in the ways that the administration is undermining the public lands system. These changes often misconstrue the lands’ historical purpose—to serve the public interest—and roll back victories for science and democracy that conservationists won over the past half-century.

Americans have long contended over public lands, as we should. We all share in their ownership. And that is a historical oddity, because perhaps nowhere in the world do people love private property as much as in the United States.

Since the late nineteenth century, though, the government’s legislative and executive branches have set aside millions of acres to be held outside the private property regime. Since Congress declared the first national park (Yellowstone) in 1872, the national government has sought to set aside lands as permanently belonging to the public. Today, the nation’s public land amounts to well over 600,000,000 acres nationally, or roughly 27% of the United States. Nevertheless, there has long been tension over just what is meant by “public good.”

Map of the US federal lands in 2005, a system that includes more than a quarter of the US land mass under different protective statuses, by National Atlas of the United States. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout their histories, public land agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management have relied on public experts to manage resources. But special interest groups long pursued private goals, seeking to maximize commodity production. For many decades, for example, ranchers practically ran the BLM (at times even supplementing federal salaries). Until the 1960s, federal land agencies administered their lands with little accountability to the broader public to whom the land purportedly belonged. Beginning with the Wilderness Act in 1964 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, Congress empowered the public to weigh in on planning and management actions. Eventually, public hearings became standard and required, an opening that allowed broader participation and different values to influence public land policy.

This caused a sea-change in administering the public lands. Scientists began questioning a management system that relied predominantly on economic considerations. Ecological data showed that eliminating such predators as wolves and grizzlies, long a tool in the federal toolkit, turned out to have cascading consequences throughout ecosystems; fire suppression on national forests transformed open forests into tangled tinderboxes and threatened future landscapes. In the 1970s, Congress told federal land agencies to rely more on science in a series of new laws (e.g., Endangered Species Act of 1973, National Forest Management Act of 1976, etc.) and provided administrative agencies with clearer direction. These laws relied on novel ecological data and methodologies while renewing democratic processes.

These new laws have greatly contributed to conservation successes. The National Wilderness Preservation System has grown from nine million acres to nearly 110 million. Some of the worst clearcutting and overgrazing has been stopped. Even crowded national parks are taking steps to minimize tourist traffic. Despite these positive changes, new environmental laws have also slowed down planning and implementation, frustrating resource users, land managers, and environmentalists. Some agencies suffer from low morale, including lack of clarity about missions. When the BLM focused almost exclusively on administering the range for livestock production, their mission was clear; now, managing those same ranges for wilderness, recreation, restoration, wild horses, livestock, and oil and gas can lead to an amorphous and dissipating sense of purpose. Traditional constituents have lost their preeminent position. For communities whose identities—and paychecks—once depended on logging national forests or grazing public lands, the environmental revolution of the last 50 years has seemingly reversed their fortunes.

That is where the Trump Administration steps in dangerously: to appeal to a sense of loss and to promise a return to traditional dominance. His “Make America Great Again” is explicitly a historical promise, if also a deeply vague one.

The Bundy et al. armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year (briefly) enacted a revanchist fantasy that “returned” government land to its rightful owners: white ranchers. This history is problematic and selective, writing out the Paiute, for instance, and it willfully misunderstands the long history of the federal presence in the region. But the Bundys gave us a grim glimpse on public land what can be done when groups organize to serve a mythic past, a prospect that extends beyond the public lands.

Reducing funding to national parks; opening more public lands to oil and gas development (a boom facilitated by the Obama Administration but poised to accelerate now); rolling back the size and purpose of national monuments; bypassing planning reforms for national ranges—all of these trends skew the public lands system and divert it from its historical trajectory of the last half-century. Environmental laws enacted under overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the 1960s and 1970s (the Wilderness Act had one “no” vote in the House of Representatives; the Endangered Species Act passed the Senate unanimously) helped reverse ecological degradation and promote democratic processes.

These lands embody the public trust. Any administration that works to maximize profit and to minimize public input for them threatens to reinstate the excesses and problems of past decades.

Featured image credit: Cedar Mesa Valley of the Gods by  Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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