Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. -Teddy Roosevelt
America has a lot of public land—in fact, more than 30% of our land area is public. In August of 2010, I heard Tim Egan speak in Wallace. He spoke about Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, the Fire of 1910, and his book The Big Burn. The thing I remember most, and that I scribbled in my notes from the evening, was his comments on the importance of America’s public lands, “‘We didn’t have a home on Hayden Lake like the swells,’ Mother said, ‘We’re richer than the bastards! We have the national forests!'” In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, he elaborated: “Not long after I was old enough to cast my first vote, I realized that with American citizenship came a birthright to my summer home.”
The land area of the United States is about 2.26 billion acres. Of that, the Federal Government owns 605 million acres that are administered by the public lands agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Parks Service, and the National Wildlife Refuge system. In addition, state governments own 197.5 million acres. The lands are administered in a variety of ways, they include recreation areas, forest land sold for timber purposes, and the lands in the National Wilderness Preservation System (cited data). Whether it is Tim Egan acknowledging the wealth the lands grant to all Americans (and millions of foreign visitors) or Teddy Roosevelt designating 230 million acres of public lands America’s public lands have been repeated acknowledged as an asset to our country.
Recently, however, the importance of these public lands has come under attack. ““Unless there’s a valid, legitimate and compelling public purpose, I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land,” Mitt Romney said. To him, the legitimate use of the land is resource extraction. Rick Santorum advocated transferring land back to the states and even selling it into private hands. Less strident voices have also chimed in arguing that federal lands are not being managed to maximize national benefit—ideas include transferring recreation areas to local government and advocating long term leases on commercially important lands.
These ideas would simply be laughable if the Legislatures of Arizona and Utah hadn’t passed bills demanding that the federal government transfer to the state some of the federal lands; with Montana, Colorado, Idaho, and New Mexico considering such bills in the future. Arizona’s SB1332 demanded that the federal government relinquish 23 million acres (vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer). Utah passed HB148 demanding 30 million acres.
Our Western states are indeed largely owned by the government. While they contain great reserves of minerals and oil they are arid and ecologically fragile. These places have economic value, certainly, however, quantifying the protection of open space is much harder. These lands do not belong to the states. They belong to our federal government in trust that they should be managed, yes, for resource extraction (leases for cattle range, mineral and oil extraction are common) but also for the preservation of space, of ecological resources, and of wilderness. These riches belong not only to the residents of Nevada (85% federal), Alaska (65%), Utah (57%), Oregon (53%), and Idaho (50%) but to every American including the residents of Connecticut (0.4% federal), Rhode Island (0.4%), Iowa (0.8%), and New York (0.8%). (data)
These federal lands hold in trust (a trust that is occasionally broken) vast tracts of lands containing spectacular mountains and canyons, subtle deserts and forests, and scenic rivers and lakes—more landscapes than one could ever expect to fully explore in a lifetime. The value of these things is not calculated in traditional economic terms but in terms of spirituality, adventure, and beauty that can be defined in as many ways as there are Americans.
As I read the rhetoric put forth in Arizona and Utah (as well as in Colorado, Montana, Idaho, and New Mexico where similar measures are planned for next year) I became furious. That land that being demanded by the legislature of Utah? It belongs to me. It belongs to you. I have only begun to explore the canyons of Utah and have only gazed at the mountains. The land in Arizona? I haven’t even begun to see the things it has to offer.
Although these bills amounted to little but empty threats, I was surprised that there wasn’t more of an outcry, not just in the west but nation wide. How dare a state government lay claim to something that belongs to all of us! Our public lands are part of our national estate—an estate that each and every one of the 300 million of us should expect will remain whole. The lands are not only for those who walk the trails, fish the lakes, use the off-road trails, and climb the peaks. They belong to all of us. Each and every one.
We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there. -Edward Abbey, “Down The River,” Desert Solitaire