This land was your land

What about public property rights? An owner's guide for our national lands

by Donella Meadows, reprinted from The Amicus Journal, Winter 1996, with permission
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.
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 and monuments.
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.