Monday, March 27, 2017

Landscapes, Wonders, and Dustups - Federal Public Lands

by and

Our federal public lands are breathtaking in their ecological scope, in their bountiful natural resources, and in their policy complexity. The history of how we arrived at current policy arrangements is also long and convoluted. According to the Congressional Research Service, today the four major federal land agencies manage about 27% percent the United States’ land mass, much of which is concentrated in the west. The U.S. Forest Service manages about 193 million acres, the National Park Service about 80 million acres, the Fish and Wildlife Service 89 million acres, and the Bureau of Land Management 248 million acres.
Americans have had a long conversation about the purpose of the federal estate. Yet, the seizure of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge buildings in southeastern Oregon by armed and self-appointed “constitutionalists” was outside that conversation to many people. It was viewed as a dangerous escalation in a long, admittedly passionate but rarely violent, discussion of federal or public land management in the western United States. The Malheur event prompted many non-westerners to ask who the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was and why they manage so much land. It also brought to the forefront many questions from those unfamiliar with western land issues, the history of the federal lands, or public land management policies. 
Government management of public land predates the country itself, as both the British and American colonists regulated logging to preserve supplies of timber for building naval vessels. After the Revolutionary War, the new country quickly sought both to acquire more land (the “Acquisition phase”) and to ensure private sector ownership (the “Disposal phase”). Acquisition was accomplished by war or purchase, while Disposal was done to raise cash and promote new settlement. The indigenous inhabitants of these lands were also removed, usually by force.
In the 1860s a new policy of “Retention” developed, primarily in the west, and is best understood through Yellowstone National Park’s designation as not just the first national park in the U.S. but also the world. Other parks would follow, though in an ad hoc and piecemeal fashion. The National Park Service was created in 1916 to manage and conserve these parks and provide “enjoyment for future generations.” Other lands fell under the Retention policy, as well.

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