AN EVOLVING IDEA

The Perils and Promise of the Federal Landscape by Adam M. Sowards

Many commentators view the United States and its Constitution as an experiment in democracy. And as an experiment, the nation remains forever unfinished, because democracy’s terms change when novel ideas arise, when results of the trial fall short or turn out different from expectations, and when Americans insist that its promise be extended to all. The public lands also trace this history of trial and error and trial again.

Perhaps no more eloquent statement of the link between democracy and public lands exists than the writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams’ remark that, “The integrity of our public lands depends on the integrity of our public process within the open space of democracy.” Over the course of the nation’s 230-odd years that integrity ‒ of the land and of politics ‒ has been sorely tested and frequently undermined. Yet, just as the citizens strive for “a more perfect union,” public land advocates ‒ from the early conservationists like Gifford Pinchot to long-standing organizations like the Sierra Club to newer groups like the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition and Latino Outdoors ‒ have invested in a system that defines and defends a public interest rooted in our common lands. The struggle to make a diverse nation work and to ensure that the public’s land be protected has been imperfect but is worth having and continuing.

 The seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke claimed, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” He meant that land in its original state remained unowned and held in common ‒ as he perceived the American continents to be. By applying labor to that land, according to Locke, people transformed it into property, held by individuals and improved by their labor and technologies to produce marketable goods. Colonizers ignored the labor already pressed deeply in the soil by the hands of Indigenous people since time immemorial. Any history of American land rests squarely on this dispossession by war, treaty, theft, and duplicity.

Visitors overlooking the Grand Canyon, 1930.
NPS archives

American political leaders fashioned a nation out of many things, but the land provided one common feature, symbolized by how states relinquished their western land claims to be held in common by the national government. For a century, the United States’ official land policy turned on transforming the public domain into private property. Squatters trespassed onto Native nations’ lands and the state purchased and fought for millions of acres until the continental United States took its current form in 1854 with the Gadsden Purchase. Known as Manifest Destiny, this acquisitive and often violent impulse overwrote environmental and cultural histories that the Diné, Lakota, Niimíipuu, and hundreds of other nations had etched in the land. And that is to say nothing of the Spanish and Mexican impact over much of the Southwest and Texas, often more than a century deep. What mattered to the American state and its citizens ‒ except for post-Emancipation Blacks, who were effectively excluded ‒ was to develop all of this newly Americanized land into self-sufficient farms and other profitable enterprises. However, best-laid plans often failed. The Homestead Act and other land laws that facilitated the transfer of public domain into private hands frequently fell short and often were corruptible with willing land office agents who abetted fraudulent land claims. Not only that, but large tracts of the American West proved stubborn to the idea that they might quickly be made to produce wheat or apples or support large herds of livestock. Meanwhile, in the East and Midwest, timber companies left ecological and social disasters in their wake as they cut forests and then ran out of town. The conservation movement arose in this context. Reformers vowed to protect some of the public domain, to prevent continued abuses by commercial activities, and to serve as a custodian to monumental landscapes to prevent them from being commercially exploited by private enterprises.

 The seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke claimed, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” He meant that land in its original state remained unowned and held in common ‒ as he perceived the American continents to be. By applying labor to that land, according to Locke, people transformed it into property, held by individuals and improved by their labor and technologies to produce marketable goods. Colonizers ignored the labor already pressed deeply in the soil by the hands of Indigenous people since time immemorial. Any history of American land rests squarely on this dispossession by war, treaty, theft, and duplicity.

American political leaders fashioned a nation out of many things, but the land provided one common feature, symbolized by how states relinquished their western land claims to be held in common by the national government. For a century, the United States’ official land policy turned on transforming the public domain into private property. Squatters trespassed onto Native nations’ lands and the state purchased and fought for millions of acres until the continental United States took its current form in 1854 with the Gadsden Purchase. Known as Manifest Destiny, this acquisitive and often violent impulse overwrote environmental and cultural histories that the Diné, Lakota, Niimíipuu, and hundreds of other nations had etched in the land. And that is to say nothing of the Spanish and Mexican impact over much of the Southwest and Texas, often more than a century deep. What mattered to the American state and its citizens ‒ except for post-Emancipation Blacks, who were effectively excluded ‒ was to develop all of this newly Americanized land into self-sufficient farms and other profitable enterprises. However, best-laid plans often failed. The Homestead Act and other land laws that facilitated the transfer of public domain into private hands frequently fell short and often were corruptible with willing land office agents who abetted fraudulent land claims. Not only that, but large tracts of the American West proved stubborn to the idea that they might quickly be made to produce wheat or apples or support large herds of livestock. Meanwhile, in the East and Midwest, timber companies left ecological and social disasters in their wake as they cut forests and then ran out of town. The conservation movement arose in this context. Reformers vowed to protect some of the public domain, to prevent continued abuses by commercial activities, and to serve as a custodian to monumental landscapes to prevent them from being commercially exploited by private enterprises.

 The seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke claimed, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” He meant that land in its original state remained unowned and held in common ‒ as he perceived the American continents to be. By applying labor to that land, according to Locke, people transformed it into property, held by individuals and improved by their labor and technologies to produce marketable goods. Colonizers ignored the labor already pressed deeply in the soil by the hands of Indigenous people since time immemorial. Any history of American land rests squarely on this dispossession by war, treaty, theft, and duplicity.

American political leaders fashioned a nation out of many things, but the land provided one common feature, symbolized by how states relinquished their western land claims to be held in common by the national government. For a century, the United States’ official land policy turned on transforming the public domain into private property. Squatters trespassed onto Native nations’ lands and the state purchased and fought for millions of acres until the continental United States took its current form in 1854 with the Gadsden Purchase. Known as Manifest Destiny, this acquisitive and often violent impulse overwrote environmental and cultural histories that the Diné, Lakota, Niimíipuu, and hundreds of other nations had etched in the land. And that is to say nothing of the Spanish and Mexican impact over much of the Southwest and Texas, often more than a century deep. What mattered to the American state and its citizens ‒ except for post-Emancipation Blacks, who were effectively excluded ‒ was to develop all of this newly Americanized land into self-sufficient farms and other profitable enterprises. However, best-laid plans often failed. The Homestead Act and other land laws that facilitated the transfer of public domain into private hands frequently fell short and often were corruptible with willing land office agents who abetted fraudulent land claims. Not only that, but large tracts of the American West proved stubborn to the idea that they might quickly be made to produce wheat or apples or support large herds of livestock. Meanwhile, in the East and Midwest, timber companies left ecological and social disasters in their wake as they cut forests and then ran out of town. The conservation movement arose in this context. Reformers vowed to protect some of the public domain, to prevent continued abuses by commercial activities, and to serve as a custodian to monumental landscapes to prevent them from being commercially exploited by private enterprises.

Visitor in Yellowstone Park, 1922. NPS archives

The first places to be set aside as parks were Yosemite and Yellowstone, undeniably beautiful and unusual landscapes. In 1864, Congress ceded Yosemite from the federal domain to California and instructed the state to dedicate the land to “public use, resort, and recreation,” and to provide for the “preservation, improvement, and protection of the property.” In 1872, Congress created Yellowstone National Park, the first place so designated in the world. More than two million acres were “reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” With these precedents, the seeds of the national park system were planted and new sites were added regularly after 1890 where concessionaires commercially exploited these majestic places and facilitated a growing tourist trade.

Yet public lands are more than monumental parks. Concerned reformers pushed their cause of more responsible public land management, and Congress responded in 1879 by appointing a Public Lands Commission to study existing laws and suggest improvements. Among its numerous suggestions, the commission recommended that western timberlands remain under federal control. Congress moved slowly, but in 1891 it authorized the president to set aside timber reserves to stave off timber famine and to protect watersheds. By the time the twentieth century arrived, many western mountain ranges were flanked by national parks and what soon were known as national forests nominally protected by the U.S. Forest Service, which had been established in 1905.

Much of this conservation movement contained a strong public spiritedness in principle ‒ the Forest Service’s guiding credo was Pinchot’s formulation of “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” However, in execution, conservation often looked undemocratic. For instance, the Forest Service believed its management needed to be outside of political interference ‒ a laudable goal perhaps ‒ but that meant its experts were rarely accountable to the public. In another example, local land users, such as Hispanos communities in northern New Mexico or white ranchers in western Colorado, found restrictions or fees on gathering wood or grazing animals on public land to violate long-held customs that jeopardized their sustenance and profitability. National parks frequently acquired land from sovereign Native nations, and those tribes typically reserved rights to continued hunting, fishing, and gathering. Yet national park authorities often prohibited such treaty-protected rights, leading to long-standing animosity between the park and neighboring Indigenous communities. The Blackfeet who share a border with Glacier National Park are one of the most notorious examples of this pattern that was repeated all over the West.

Public land advocates have often overlooked these flaws ‒ then and now ‒ which has left them open to criticism of being elitist and racist, an ongoing reckoning the nation at large continues to face.

The public land system kept growing and the agencies in charge intensified their management of the forests, parks, rangelands, and refuges under their jurisdictions to meet the competing demands the public made on the resources. This meant different things in different contexts.

Initially, national forests largely were custodial, simply trying to keep forests from devastation. However, in time, the Forest Service initiated more active management of its forests, ramping up timber sales especially after World War II, when it also began using pesticides and deployed personnel and technology to suppress all forest fires possible. By the 1960s, heavy harvest levels, including clearcutting, were radically liquidating forests and often harming stream quality and fish and wildlife populations. An agency that once served ostensibly to protect timber resources from exploitation seemed, at least to some, to be promoting such exploitation.

Meanwhile, the Park Service developed its sites with more amenities to accommodate tourists. After lowered visitation during the Great Depression and especially the war, national parks received increased numbers of visitors in the late 1940s and 1950s. To serve them and to revitalize the agency, the National Park Service director, Conrad Wirth, launched Mission 66, a massive development plan that spent a billion dollars in the decade before the agency’s 50th anniversary in 1966. In Mission 66’s wake were thousands of miles of new or improved roads, abundant new parking lots and campgrounds, and hundreds of new buildings all to serve a burgeoning tourist population that numbered 133 million people in the parks by the program’s conclusion. An agency meant to protect natural spectacles from commercial exploitation now seemed, at least to some, to be promoting it.

Although their predecessor agencies existed long before, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were created by administrative action in 1940 and 1946 respectively. These agencies, too, intensified their management activities in the middle of the twentieth century. The FWS often rearranged a landscape’s hydrology to manipulate water levels, doused fields in pesticides, and herded migratory birds to ensure they went to the proper fields ‒ all of which seemed necessary to protect certain protected species but also meant the managerial presence on wildlife refuges could be heavy. Meanwhile, the BLM promoted livestock grazing and resource extraction on its lands with few restrictions, so much so that many joked its acronym stood for the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. Along with the Forest Service, the BLM sought to improve western rangelands by transforming sagebrush habitat into productive grasslands, an alteration that took little regard for wildlife and often required heavy chemical use or chaining (i.e., dragging a chain between two bulldozers to remove plants). These agencies intervened heavily to make the public lands they administered produce commodities from resources to support and enrich private individuals and corporations. Agencies meant to protect species ‒ wildlife or habitat ‒ from exploitation seemed, at least to some, to be manipulating environments excessively.

The land agencies’ managerial hands proved too heavy for broad parts of the American public. Beginning in the 1950s and accelerating throughout the next decade, advocates demanded stronger environmental protection and greater input from the public for management actions. In response, Congress passed a series of laws that transformed the legal landscape on which public lands rested.

The legislation broadly accomplished three things. First, laws like the Wilderness Act (1964) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA, 1973) established much stricter protection over some places and some species. Second, new laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA, 1970) required an assessment of potential environmental harms. NEPA included public input as part of regular operating procedures, broke the stranglehold agencies often held, and promoted greater democratic governance over the public’s land. Three, laws like the National Forest Management Act (NFMA, 1976) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976) reoriented how the Forest Service and BLM managed their lands, including the requirement for longer-term plans that incorporated new environmental and democratic values and broader scientific evidence.

Laws Congress passed between 1964 and 1976 disrupted age-old patterns where the agencies felt largely insulated from supervision. They were often slow to implement and even resisted these measures. The Forest Service, for instance, stalled its wilderness review process and also increased its timber harvest program. Despite this reluctance and obstinacy, the new circumstances transformed agencies. The planning requirements modified hiring practices in ways that diversified agency personnel dramatically, adding more biologists and other interdisciplinary scientists to meet the mandates of this legislation. At the same time, the agencies also diversified their gender and racial composition to better reflect the American public. Meanwhile, by focusing on a broader concept of the public interest, which included recreation and wildlife values along with economic concerns, different priorities emerged in discussions about public lands management, including reintroducing predators and solitude. More voices meant more conflict, though, because democracy is cacophonous when more people are allowed to participate. Consequently, public lands seemed far more politicized by 1980 than they had in 1950, but these places had always been subject to political conflict.

The years since 1980 have been characterized by deep political conflicts that have produced gridlock in policy and increased politicization over most matters related to public lands. One side effect of the new laws of the 1960s and 1970s was the opportunity for groups to bring lawsuits against public land agencies. These changes allowed a new tool to leverage change on public lands, and environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice) emerged and took full advantage of the new laws. The more restrictive environmental goals, the increased number of voices at the table, and the novel legal strategies (and frequent success in court) generated a counter-movement of western commodity users known typically as the Sagebrush Rebellion in the early 1980s. It morphed into the Wise Use Movement in the 1990s and today is part of a general conservative, anti-federal government movement widespread in the West with many splinters.

This conservative backlash that has evolved in the aftermath of the 1970s disdained how public land management changed. The critics believed the new focus on environmental protection seemed to favor recreation and wilderness, yet the majority of public lands remained available for grazing, logging, and mining and other extraction. Sagebrush rebels and their progeny argued that local governments or private owners would be better land managers, by which they often meant more responsive to their economic goals for the public’s resources. These positions found a welcome home in the Republican Party, which had become more ideologically conservative, and key appointments over environmental agencies in the Reagan, Bush (both), and Trump administrations courted and welcomed angry westerners who rejected the continued existence of public lands.

Over these decades, a series of protests voiced the anxieties and frustrations of longtime public land users who felt they had been written off of the land. Here are a few of them:

  • In 1980, a county commissioner outside Moab, Utah, graded a road into a wilderness study area in an action meant to foreclose the possibility of wilderness status.
  • In the 1994 and 1995, bombs were detonated at BLM and Forest Service offices in Nevada.
  • A Nevada rancher named Wayne Hage pursued (unsuccessfully) a novel legal argument that because of his water rights in the area, his Forest Service grazing allotment essentially functioned like his private property and agency actions and regulations that changed his access were a takings prohibited by the Constitution.
  • Some ranchers stopped paying federally-mandated grazing fees, although their reasons could differ. Carrie and Mary Dann, sisters and Western Shoshone tribal members, refused to pay grazing fees and ran afoul of the BLM in the 1990s. They maintained that the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley never granted title of the land to the United States. In southern Nevada, Cliven Bundy refused to pay his grazing fees, which grew to more than a million dollars in delinquency, because he did not acknowledge the right of the federalgovernment over public lands in Nevada, leading to a confrontation in 2014 with federal authorities.
  • In 2016, Bundy’s son and allies seized the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon for more than a month, claiming that they wished to “return” the land to the original settlers ‒ meaning ranchers, not the Burns Paiute Tribe.

The list could go on, but these few samples suggest the way frustrated westerners moved outside of the law and democratic norms.

Environmentalists also practiced what they saw as civil disobedience ‒ blockading roads, sitting in trees, trespassing ‒ to protect species and habitats and to insist that the laws be followed in the name of public land. Many of these protests occurred on behalf of endangered species (e.g., northern spotted owl) and the habitats they relied on (e.g., old-growth forests). Over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, activists used legal and direct action to slow logging in western forests, drastically reducing timber harvests on public lands by forcing the Forest Service to follow NEPA, ESA, and NFMA regulations. While protesters received much blame for the economic decline, technological changes in the industry, trade policies, and other economic finagling gutted timber towns. Although inaccurate, blaming owls and hippies for their woes rather than multinational corporations and policy choices felt easier and perhaps more satisfying.

In a nation increasingly divided by political partisanship, division on public lands was to be expected, too.

The history of Bears Ears, a stunning area in southeastern Utah exemplifies many trends of public lands history. The area is undeniably beautiful and contains a rich history and material culture, especially for the Indigenous people who have long called the Four Corners their homeland. An inter-tribal coalition ‒ led by five tribes with dozens of others supporting ‒ called for stronger federal protection, namely a national monument. Charged with crafting a solution, a Republican-led Congress during the Obama administration dithered and devised a compromise that favored flexibility for grazing and energy interests over a diminished area. Indigenous people and environmentalists dismissed the shoddy compromise, and so President Obama declared Bears Ears National Monument in waning days of his administration.

A hallmark of the Trump administration has been to undo any Obama-era legacy, and Bears Ears represented this effort for public lands policy. The president ordered Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke (resigned in 2018) to gather public input and review the monument’s creation and status. Most observers noted that Zinke’s review favored commodity interests and dismissed tribal values and preferences. The overwhelming public response was to keep Bears Ears National Monument as it had been created. Instead, President Trump rescinded Obama’s order ‒ something never before done and of uncertain legal authority ‒ and shrunk the monument at the end of 2017 by 85 percent, from 1,351,849 acres to 201,876 acres. This unprecedented presidential action remains under litigation.

The episode symbolizes much for the history of public lands. Bears Ears reminds us that public lands are Native lands, and the sovereignty of tribes remains real but constantly threatened and undermined. It shows how the executive branch shapes policy and how the legislative branch plays a role with courts often having final say. It also demonstrates the ways the parties have in recent years rejected the imperative to govern for the public interest and instead battle against each other in what often feels like a zero-sum game.

The public lands, though, remain an area where American citizens often find some common ground. A large majority of Americans wants these lands protected for and accessible to the public, not for corporations. When democracy works, political leadership will recognize this and act accordingly. When it doesn’t, the lack of political integrity erodes the public’s land and their trust.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, writer, and professor who lives in the Palouse region of the inland Northwest. A specialist of public lands history, he is the author of numerous books, articles, and essays, the most recent of which is An Open Pit Visible from the Moon: The Wilderness Act and the Fight to Protect Miners Ridge and the Public Interest.