This land was your land
What about public property rights? An owner's guide for our national
by Donella Meadows, reprinted from The Amicus Journal, Winter 1996, with
here is a virulent movement in the West and now in the
Congress to give federal lands "back" to the states - as if the
states had ever owned them.
Of course, the original "owners" were the
Native Americans. In the West, the Spanish took the lands, and then the
American people either bought or fought for them. (At the time, those American
people lived in the East. The western states did not exist yet.) Then the
Easterners, through their federal government, gave the land away. They gave
287 million acres to homesteaders, 94 million acres to railroad companies,
61 million acres to veterans, and (Westerners please note) 328 million to
the newly forming states.
Hundreds of millions of acres of deserts, mountains,
and high plains went unclaimed. They became the core of what we now know
as the federal lands. Since then, some lands have been bought and sold,
some eastern lands have become federalized and Alaska has been added to
the legacy. The upshot is that each lucky citizen of this nation now holds
a share in 726 million acres of federal land.
You and I own the Cape Cod National Seashore and the
Utah Canyonlands, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Everglades.
The Appalachian Trail and the battlefield at Gettysburg are ours, as are
the snow-bright peaks of Mt. Hood in Oregon and Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.
No other people in the world hold such a huge treasure in common for the
benefit of everyone.
One-fourth of our nation's area is federal land. (Three
out of four acres are privately owned.) Common ownership should mean sharing
the lands fairly and managing them jointly. Those two tasks have never been
easy. They get harder as our numbers grow and as private lands are more
fully exploited. Most of us have paid no attention to the management of
our lands, and so, like any unguarded treasure, the lands have attracted
thieves, some of whom are now in Congress. They are aiming to legalize their
pilfering and that of their friends through four basic strategies:
We owners had better wake up. The first thing we need to do is take an inventory
of what we have and its condition.
- Sell the lands or their resources to corporations or individuals, usually
at far less than market value.
- Give them to the states, where bribes are cheaper than they are in Washington.
- Slash federal funds for administering the lands, so unlawful exploiters
will not get caught.
- Waive, weaken, or eliminate the laws that limit exploitation of the
The largest chunk of our land is managed by the Bureau
of Land Management, not so fondly known as the BLM. BLM land totals about
268 million acres, nearly all in Alaska and eleven western states. Much
of this land is used by ranchers for grazing - some of it abusive overgrazing
at a bargain price. Virtually any other use is permitted, from mining to
hiking to roaring around in all-terrain vehicles. The BLM lands are the
ones Congress wants to give to the states.
The next biggest asset is run by the National Forest
Service: 191 million acres in forty-four states. By law, these forests should
be managed for recreation, wildlife, and long-term timber production. Lately
they have been run like a business in liquidation. Timber cuts have gone
far over sustainable yields, clear-cuts erode steep slopes, logging rights
have been sold so cheap that the Forest Service (and thus the taxpayer)
loses money on nearly every deal.
Our National Wildlife Refuges, managed by the Fish and
Wildlife Service, amount to 87.4 million acres. The first priority on these
lands is supposed to be wildlife protection. Hunting, fishing, and other
recreational uses are allowed, and sometimes livestock grazing and mineral
extraction. Some in Congress think it is a great idea to allow oil drilling
in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Then there are the crown jewels, the National Parks.
There are 368 of them, covering 77 million acres in forty-nine states. No
logging, mining, or other extractive activities (except extracting money
from tourists) are allowed on these scenic lands. Tourist concessions in
the parks are lucrative monopolies for which our federal managers collect
too little rent. Some of the parks are overcrowded; there are arguments
about building more roads and hotels. Some members of Congress think we
should sell off National Parks to balance the budget. A bill was introduced
in the House to set up a commission to recommend which parks to close down
- no public input allowed. The House voted down the bill; but the bill's
sponsor simply turned around and hitched it to a major budget bill instead.
The remaining federal lands are used by the military
(and contain some of the nation's worst toxic dumps) or for federal buildings
You can see that our lands are being managed more for the good of a few
people over the short term than for the good of all the people over the
long term. As with other issues, Congress has done the right thing to bring
this problem to public attention. As with other issues, most of the solutions
Congress is coming up with will make the problem not just a little worse,
but much worse.
Donella Meadows is a MacArthur Fellow and an adjunct professor of
environmental studies at Dartmouth. Members of the Natural Resources Defense
Council subscribe to the Amicus Journal through their dues. Contact NRDC,
6310 San Vicente Blvd. Ste 250, Los Angeles CA 90048 (213)934-6900.