America’s Public Lands: Under Attack

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.

Public Lands: BLM

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.

Public Lands: National Wildlife Refuge

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)

Public Lands: National Park Service

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.

Public Lands: Forest Service

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

6 Replies to “America’s Public Lands: Under Attack”

  1. Fantastic post, a must read! The National Parks System is easily in my top 10 favorite things about the USA, which is saying something considering so many slots must be reserved for things like “Freedom” and “Diet Coke.” The lawyer part of me wants to read up more on the Constitutional issues at play in state demands for return of federally-owned land, but the left-wing nature-lover 50-state-explorer of me who will never forget her trips to Acadia, the Badlands, Glacier National Park, the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, and Zion takes the rightness of preserving public lands to be FUNDAMENTALLY TRUE.

    1. I would love, love, love to know more about the legal issues involved in state demands for federally-owned land. I sort of got the impression that there’s not much the states can stand on since the national press didn’t give it much of a though. (Or perhaps they just don’t care?)

      I think the really interesting piece is that the federal lands in Arizona and Utah include some AWESOME national parks but that most of the federal land in those states is BLM. BLM manages some really picturesque places but a lot of them are more subtle than the national parks and just don’t get quite the love. But they’re super important. National forests and BLM lands often buffer the national parks from more intensive development, not to mention that they’re pretty awesome in their own right!

      And yes, FUNDAMENTALLY TRUE is right.


    One of our things is to visit the 100 most popular national parks. I love National Parks, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg on public lands.

  3. I want to put an exclamation point on this entire piece. I am shocked at the desire to sell, expolit and generally mis-use public lands. It is true that these lands cannot be appriased in terms of their monetary worth they are part of our national fabric and need to be protected at all costs.

  4. Thank you for bringing light to this issue. Our National Parks are our treasure. They are on my bucket list for sure. Teddy Roosevelt has always been a hero of mine and I will be on alert for more of this behavior by politicians. Given the names you mentioned it does not surprise me in the least.

  5. Beth,

    Will you consider supporting an effort in Hawaii to repeal a Law that has been converting public lands into private use to help deal with the debt? I googled the term “public lands under attack” and found your article. I’m concerned as you are about the problem affecting our Federal Public Lands and also nearly every state in the country (except for about 6) that are financially insolvent and looking for ways to solve the mounting debt problems. And basically public lands are being eyeballed to be sold off to private interests to help pay down the debts. It’s a short term fix and of course not really a fix at all.

    I’m a California resident with ties to Hawaii and in that state they are pushing their legislators to abolish a legislatively created entity called the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC). Creation of PLDC was an outcome of a bill passed in Hawaii last year. The PLDC has created for itself powers to bypass laws on the books having to do with zoning, environmental regulations and transparency to the public. The Act 55 which the PLDC creation and role is a part, was created under the auspices of helping to maintain public lands by partnering with private interests but bottom line is that the public there is in an uproar of some of the initial abuses of power by the PLDC which has only been in operation for less than a year.

    The good news is that the legislators actually seemed to have listened, or shall I say they feared that they had no choice due to the strong movement by a number of grassroots organizations opposing Act 55, and in this upcoming legislative period, with the deadline for bills having closed yesterday, there were approximately 24 new bills introduced by their House and their Senate for the purpose of repealing all or parts of Act 55 which will now travel through the system. It is impossible to know the sincerity of the legislators to actually pass these bills, it may be just a way to appease the citizens and appear to be doing something. But any support and collaboration we can provide will help all of the states. If citizens and legislators of one state achieve a victory in pushing back on the conversion of public lands to pay debts, then others will take notice.

    So, I would ask you and others who share your deep concern a favor which is to log onto the online investigative journalism newspaper cite called CivilBeat in Honolulu on Monday Jan. 28, 2013 and look for an article in the “Community Voices” authored by a man named Simon Russell.

    The website is (and you can also look for an archived article I authored last year when a large group of people including myself, owners of self-managed rentals, were under attack by the Hawaii legislators looking to take away our property rights in payback support to special interest groups that are their backers – Hotels and Real Estate Property Managers).

    The article by Simon which will run on Monday is written to raise awareness and request citizen participation to ensure that Hawaii passes a bill this year to eliminate the PLDC and protect its public lands from abusive financial gain by private interests or an easy way for the current government to pay down debt. Please post a comment of support and/or of background on what is happening in your state. I believe you need a facebook account to do so but I don’t recall for certain. In any event, Simon belongs to a facebook site in Hawaii consisting of over 1500 members all devoted to the cause of Repealing Act 55 in Hawaii. So all of those voices may also be called upon back to your efforts in your state to protect your public lands. I am supporting Simon and their efforts and hope they in turn will help Californians protect our public lands with legislative activities that either threaten or support our public lands. It is clear to me that desperate financial times often result in bad decisions for the long term welfare of the citizens.

    Please consider my request above and also let me know more about the situation in your state and efforts to restrict the conversion of public lands to pay down your state’s debt. I appreciate what you are doing and support you in your efforts .

    Thank you,
    Elen Stoops

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