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Our Great Estate

Millions of acres of wildlands are the legacy of every American, but the Bush Administration is putting them at risk.

by John G. Mitchell

I happen to be part-owner of the finest collection of real estate in the world. You are, too. And so is every other American. We own some 655 million acres of federal lands and waters sprinkled handsomely across the 50 states. Here are mountains, deserts, and plains; forests unlike any others on Earth; wild rivers and lonely seashores and coral reefs and undulant meadows spangled with morning dew. Gather them all together and you could cover up Alaska and California with land to spare. Divvy it up (but let’s not) and each of the 280 million people in the United States would preside over more than two acres.

"But you don’t really own it," a hiker said to me one day at the edge of the canyon of the Dirty Devil River. "It belongs to the government." We were peering into a 1,500-foot abyss that, from top to bottom, offers a cross-sectional crash course in the geology of southern Utah. The hiker knew his rocks: the khaki-colored Navajo sandstone capping a thin bench of red Kayenta, the long columns of Wingate falling straight to a crumbling skirt of Chinle scree. We agreed it was breathtaking. But the man (from England, I suspected from his accent) seemed less stunned by the dizzying view than by my assertion of ownership. "The guidebooks inform me that all this land is owned by the government," he insisted. "Not exactly," I replied. "The government is only my caretaker."

And so it is, for the public domain is managed for the most part by seven federal agencies. The U.S. Forest Service administers more than 190 million acres in 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. The National Park Service manages more than 80 million acres scattered across 388 parks, monuments, preserves, shores, recreation areas, and historic sites. The Fish and Wildlife Service holds about 95 million acres, including 542 national wildlife refuges. Submerged lands and waterfronts at hundreds of reservoirs under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, together with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 13 marine sanctuaries, add another 30 million acres to the public domain. And the Bureau of Land Management—big daddy of all these agencies—oversees more than 260 million acres (about one-eighth of the country’s land). The BLM is known for its wide-open undesignated spaces, but also governs some wildernesses and monuments.

So that’s our heritage—the birthright of every American. We should enjoy it while we can, for there are those among us—decision-makers at the highest levels of government—who are tampering with some of our estate’s most precious pieces.

In the beginning, the public domain was built from the spoils of our conquering nation. Each successive invasion or purchase shoved the frontier farther west, dispossessing indigenous Americans while opening the land to settlement by ethnic Europeans. For the first taking, the 13 original states ceded to the federal government nearly 250 million acres between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Land offices soon advertised that 80 acres could be had for as little as $100. With the Louisiana Purchase and later acquisitions in the South and far West, the United States found itself proprietor of nearly 2 billion acres. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, a settler could claim title to 160 acres simply by occupying the land for five years. It didn’t take long for the homesteaders to stake out 80 million acres, even as the government doled out more public land to the railroads, as inducements to lay their tracks across the continent. (Northern Pacific alone got some 40 million acres.)

But there would be other visions for the country’s great estate. In 1872, Uncle Sam established Yellowstone as our—and the world’s—first national park. That act alone, a park advisory board reminded us a few years ago, "signaled a new way the world would view its land and, eventually, its seas. A youthful, growing nation absorbed in westward expansion had set aside 2 million acres on which no one could lawfully settle, extract minerals or timber, and—after the turn of the century—even hunt." Yellowstone had put the United States in the business of treating some of its lands as if they were not a business, but rather a public trust to be preserved in perpetuity.

A little more than a generation later, President Theodore Roosevelt reached into the public domain to create national forests, preserves, and monuments galore, not to mention the world’s first system of refuges to protect wildlife. In 1929, Herbert Hoover saw the federal government’s role differently and moved to cede all the remaining undesignated lands to the states.

Fortunately for the land, and for us, the Great Depression stopped him from implementing that plan (though we sometimes hear its echo from sagebrush rebels who, if they could, would remand the federal lands to corporations and county courthouse politicians).

The Bush administration advocates compromising the federal estate in only slightly more subtle ways. Consider, for example, the National Wilderness Preservation System, due to mark its 40th anniversary in September. More than one-seventh of the public domain—106 million acres—now enjoys protection as wilderness, in which no mining, logging, or other commercial development is allowed. These acres comprise more than 660 separate units in national forests, parks, and wildlife refuges, and on Bureau of Land Management property. But the wilderness system is an unfinished book, and many of its blank pages belong to the BLM. Just last year, Gale Norton, Bush’s Interior Department secretary, ordered the BLM to cease taking stock of unprotected areas with wilderness potential—effectively yanking millions of acres out of consideration.

Norton also dusted off an arcane provision of the Mining Act of 1866 that she believes allows states, counties, and private individuals to claim and bulldoze rights-of-way across federal lands, providing they can prove the byways have been in continuous use over the years. According to the administration’s twisted interpretation of Revised Statute 2477, any old cow path, dry wash, or sled trail can qualify. (See "Profile.") The state of Alaska has already filed 3,000 miles of claims in 14 national parks, including some 400 miles of rights-of-way that would cross designated or potential wilderness within Denali National Park and Preserve. Hello, highway; goodbye, wilderness.

The park system as a whole is in deplorable shape, and so is the morale of its stewards in the National Park Service. (See "Pink Slips in the Parks," September/October 2003.) While worsening such perennial problems as underfunding and understaffing, the Bush administration is undercutting the Park Service’s struggle to maintain a balance between accommodating the visitor and protecting the resource. The way the Bush folks see it, national parks are best managed as tourist destinations. Norton is trying—against the advice of government scientists—to reverse the Clinton-era rule that would have phased out snowmobiles in Yellowstone. The administration is also tinkering with air-quality regulations in a way that could adversely affect such heavily polluted national parks as Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains. In the classic doublespeak of official Washington these days, Bush’s "Clear Skies Initiative" sharply curtails the authority given park managers under the Clean Air Act to review and, if necessary, amend plans for new power plants upwind of their parks.

The agenda for the other land agencies is similarly disheartening. Along with "Clear Skies" for the Park Service, the Bush administration advocated a "Healthy Forests Initiative" for the Forest Service, with loggers—in the name of wildfire suppression—ministering to otherwise healthy stands of ancient trees. The administration got much of what it wanted in the "Healthy Forests" bill passed by Congress in December. Clinton’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which would have banned commercial logging in nearly 60 million acres of unroaded forest, has also been derailed. Meanwhile, over at the BLM, it’s back to business as usual. Norton’s predecessor at the Interior Department, Bruce Babbitt, had tried to elevate the agency from its status as a quasi-commercial "Bureau of Livestock and Mining" into a more environmentally sensitive "Bureau of Landscapes and Monuments" by placing its wilder lands into a new National Landscape Conservation System. But nowadays at the BLM, one hears little of landscapes or monuments. The new buzzwords are "energy development."

And how fares the Fish and Wildlife Service and its refuges, which are supposed to provide safe habitat for migratory birds and indigenous four-legged critters? Despite the best efforts of the agency’s scientists and managers, refuges remain burdened with clearly incompatible secondary uses, such as grazing, airboating, off-road-vehicle riding, and—from the unsublime to the ridiculous—field trials for hunting dogs. The Bush administration did not create this scandalous situation, but has done nothing to undo it.

Fortunately, public lands are resilient. They managed to bounce back a decade ago after 12 straight years of exploitation and neglect under Gale Norton’s Republican predecessors—James Watt, Donald Hodel, and Manuel Lujan. But for demonstrated capacity to deconstruct the values of the public domain, this administration makes those earlier ones look like amateurs. How much stress, over the long haul, can the resource endure?

It has been said that national parks are "the best idea America ever had"—a pardonable boast that also might be applied to some other parts of the public domain. And the parks notion has spread rapidly to other nations. When the first World Parks Congress convened in 1962, there were not quite a million square miles of protected lands around the globe. Last year, at a meeting in South Africa, the fifth World Parks Congress counted some 7 million square miles of protected lands and waters worldwide, a quarter of it within national parks and designated natural areas. Almost half of Greenland is now protected, a third of New Zealand, and a tenth of Italy. Our greatest idea is catching on.

Here at home, where the drift of resource politics now seems to run away from protection, I often find a measure of comfort just savoring the memory of some special places in the public commons I’m privileged to know. And what do I see? I see a veil of mist rising from the valley at Yosemite to reveal the gray facade of El Capitan. I see caribou crossing the braided Jago River on the undrilled coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; the glowing autumnal palette of maple and beech in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of New Hampshire’s White Mountains National Forest; hikers on the black sand beach of California’s "Lost Coast," trekking north toward Sea Lion Gulch in the BLM’s King Range National Conservation Area. Precious places such as these are a part of our inheritance as Americans. But we’d best keep an eye on them, for these are times when a few of our fellow heirs still don’t understand that the property belongs to all of us—and it is not for sale.

John G. Mitchell served as editor-in-chief of Sierra Club Books in the early 1970s. He recently retired as environment editor of National Geographic.


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