This Land Is Your Land

This Land Is Your Land

Alexis ChapmanThursday,10 March 2016

One of the greatest things about the U.S. is our public land. We have millions of acres of Federal lands in all the states and territories featuring all different kinds of significant natural areas and historic sites. One of the annoying things about the U.S. is that we seem to always be in some kind of fight about that public land. Who gets to use it? What can it be used for? Who gets to decide who gets to use it and for what? Sometimes these fights involve armed standoffs but more often they take place in congressional hearing rooms and government offices. And recently there has been quite a lot going on in those hearing rooms and government offices.

In February, President Obama designated three new National Monuments in California. This is not too surprising. According to the White House, “President Obama has protected more acres of public lands and water than any Administration in American history.” Protecting public land is good, but some people have a problem with the President unilaterally using the Antiquities Act to create National Monuments without any local input or legislative process. Changing these lands to National Monuments may also mean that things like mining, cattle grazing, or off-roading — which are currently allowed on these lands — would no longer be permitted, which some say will have negative economic consequences in the communities adjacent to the new monuments. The new monuments in California caused backlash but have already been created. The real fight could be coming with the possible creation of a National Monument at Bears Ears in Utah. This has the potential to be a totally unique National Monument because it could be co-managed by Native American Tribes and Federal Agencies. The plan has been proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and could be an opportunity for a new kind of cooperation in preserving culturally important and naturally significant areas. But of course not everyone is happy about the proposal. Utah’s Governor and congressional delegation has asked Obama not to use the Antiquities Act to designate the monument and would seem to prefer that the federal government not manage the lands at all.

Utah’s politicians are perhaps not alone in this sentiment; if some of our other elected representatives get their way, big chunks of our National Forests could become much less national as well. On February 25th the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands held a hearing on five bills. Two of those bills — H.R. 2316 and H.R. 3650 — would have states, counties, or other local government bodies, rather than the Forest Service, manage logging in large areas of the National Forests. The hearing on these bills started with Chairman McClintock noting, “Three overarching objectives we have for our Federal Lands Policy: First, restore public access to the public lands; second, restore sound forest management to federal lands; and third to restore the Federal Government as a good neighbor to those communities directly impacted by the federal lands.” He then, somewhat confusingly, seems to suggest that the federal government is incapable of doing any of those things, that states or local governments should be in charge of their forests, and that what they should be doing with them is logging. To be clear, logging already happens in National Forests, this isn’t new. But if these bills pass, logging would be prioritized over other uses within the forests in question. And what’s worse, a number of environmental regulations would no longer apply if states or counties, rather than the Forest Service, were managing the land. Bills similar to these have been introduced in recent years — and at least one made it past the House, but not the Senate — but the argument about who should manage the National Forests, and how, is as old as the Forest Service itself. So even if these bills fail, this issue will probably keep coming up.

There is of course a long history of logging and cattle grazing and mining Federal land, especially in the west, and maybe it’s important to take that into consideration when determining land use. But prior to those activities there was a much much longer history involving none of those things. In an honest conversation about U.S. Federal land it has to be noted that the only reason the Federal Government has this land is because they did a pretty efficient job committing genocide against the original occupants. The fact that some of the descendants of those original Americans are willing to work with the U.S. Government shows a tremendous amount of good will. It seems like the least, literally the absolute least, the Government can do is to work with Native Americans and prioritize their desire to protect certain lands. Given that U.S. federal lands are supposed to belong to everyone, I think a fair second priority in determining how to manage them is maximizing sustainable public usage. Once those priorities are accomplished, if there is still room for for-profit business activities like grazing or logging or mining then maybe there is a way to make those things work, but they should not be our top concern when it comes to public land.

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Image Credit: Bureau of Land Management

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