The public lands debate continues--most recently punctuated with a couple of front-page articles in TIME magazine (10/23/95) featuring both what they call the "West's growing rebellion" and the Congressional forces at work to compliment it. In "Public Lands, Private Rights, Public Responsibilities" I try to provide a bit of context for the debate and challenge participants to look beyond the tabloid stories in seeking solutions to this impasse. Along the way I point out some source references that I have found useful in my attempt to separate wisdom from foolishness. 6 pages. Dave.

Public Lands, Private Rights, Public Responsibilities
by Dave Iverson

Controversy over federal land management is at an all-time high, infrequently erupting into violence as frustrations mount. The controversy over communal versus individual ownership is an old one, with roots that go very deep to the framing principles of "modernism" -- the cultural foundation around which the US constitution was built. Critics of modernism suggest that the movement was founded on three key principles: (1) humans set against nature--carving out an existence by pushing back the frontier, (2) individualism--as opposed to collectivism, and (3) an over-emphasis on method or "means" without giving due consideration to questions of "ends" (Borgmann 1993). Critics of modernism do not propose that the founding principles of modernism were wrong or bad, they were simply those that made sense at the moment. But as we cross the divide toward postmodernism, these same critics believe that we must define a new context for living where: humans are considered both as a part of nature and apart from nature, individualism is expressed in the context of collective culture(s), and means and ends are considered jointly without undue emphasis being placed on either.

A Short History of Public Lands in the United States

During the 19th century, public Lands in the United States were held as a pool of commons to be disposed of in an orderly manner, mainly to private ownership. But that philosophy changed in the early days of the 20th Century as national parks and national forests emerged on the landscape amid considerable conflict and controversy. Since that time public lands debates have flared-up several times: 1929-30, 1945-47, and 1976-83, and again now. In each case the public lands have survived intact, but with each round of controversy public lands managers have been made aware that the special interests still wield considerable influence over what is done, and for whom, on public land (Nelson 1995(a), Lehmann 1995; See also Wilkinson 1992).

It should come as no surprise that federal land management is controversial. After all, federal lands make up 68% of Alaska, 44% of California, 62% of Idaho, 83% of Nevada, and 64% of Utah. Any management that pervasive across the landscape is going to draw both attention and criticism. And with the cost of purchasing private land skyrocketing in many places in the West, it is no wonder that federal ownership and management has become a topic of discussion beyond the normal circles of environmentalists, ranchers, loggers, and miners. Moreover, the debate itself has shifted. What was once a debate over user fees and "who is responsible for what" is increasingly talked about in terms of 'privatization': selling off public lands.

Looking Below the Surface of Public Lands Controversy

If we were a people prone to civil discussion of knotty problems we would expect to find thoughtful commentary on what is at issue and on probable effects of various courses of action. Too often, though, we do not engage ourselves in thoughtful discussion, and instead fill tabloids with stories of quick-fixes. Quick-fix stories are written by those who stand to gain by proposing "resolutions" to the controversy in ways that favor the interests they serve and trying to convince the rest of us that the resultant costs and benefits of management favor the move they promote. When this happens, those who stand to lose write their own "resolutions" tallying up costs and benefits differently while attempting to convince us of follies built into the earlier story and the bliss inherent in the latter resolution. Then we see more moves and counter moves from both sides.

Economists are often drawn into this game, and win favor for themselves as champions of one side or another by framing issues narrowly around the concept of 'efficiency in administration' (Lehmann 1995, Wilkinson 1992). In this short note we will attempt to dig a bit deeper into the controversy, and will refrain from conjuring up yet another set of numbers. One particularly thorny issue is whether or not the government ought to own any lands aside from, say, military bases, municipal parks and national parks. And even some national parks are not held apart from this contentious debate. This issue recurrently surfaces in political discussions, and this year has been punctuated by legislation introduced to: (1) transfer to the states (with options to privitize) most of the National Park Service lands, all of the Bureau of Land Management lands, and all of the US Forest Service lands; (2) privatize many ski resort lands that are now held in federal ownerships; and (3) reaffirm and strengthen private rights to grazing, mining, etc. on federal lands.

Even if we could skirt the contentious issue of "whether or not government ownership", we would find ourselves squarely in the middle of the debate over how much and what kinds of land the government ought to administer and to what ends the government ought to work toward. And, of course, this leaves the door ajar to debate just who in government ought to do the work: municipal, county, state, or federal government?

Context for the Current Public Lands Debate

Why is the debate so intense this time around? An answer to that question might be found if we think about what people think about government today. A common thread interwoven through political discussions today is that people have lost faith in government generally (Howard 1995, Toffler and Toffler 1995). The legislature is commonly blasted for having succumbed to bi-partisan gridlock, and for having been captured by special interests asking for special favor through both law and appropriated monies. The judiciary is blasted for becoming a showplace that draws more attention on polarized issues and violent confrontations than do soap-operas on TV. Finally, the executive branch is blasted for having becoming overweight, sluggish, and increasingly meaningless. These 'blasts' convey only partial truths, but have enough truth embedded in them for people to have begun to doubt government as currently defined. And no wonder: as the complexities of life continue to increase, more and more people seem incapable of dealing with layers and layers of bureaucracy backed up by a spaghetti-tangle of law and regulation that have accumulated since the Nation began (Howard 1995). A common response, particularly from those who stand to gain directly, is to suggest some form of "privatization" for public lands.

To gain further perspective on our current plight, couple the loss of faith in government with new-found awareness that 250 million people in the United States is a substantial presence, and one that some suggest will likely double to 500 million in 30 years or less, and to 1 billion 30 years later. When the Western frontier was declared closed in the late 1800s, by contrast, the West was still sparsely populated. At the turn of the century there were only a few thousand people in southern California. Now there are in the neighborhood of 14 million in the Los Angeles area alone. Just after World War II there were 16 million people living in the Western US; now there are over 50 million and growth rates are nothing short of astounding in many places. In many places in the West people are being compressed into ever-tighter spaces, and feel compelled to fight back--blaming whoever and whatever they can for their deep-felt loss of privacy and the sense of freedom that comes from living on the frontier. In earlier times they could have picked up and left for "greener pastures" elsewhere. Now they will have to find means to deal with the knotty problem of resolving issues in-place.

Rights AND Responsibilities

Much of the rhetoric surrounding public lands is about the inefficiency of federal ownership, 'takings' of private rights, and loss of local control. These are certainly valid issues, but there are other issues to be dealt with as well, issues that seem to have been overlooked by those championing individual- and property-rights issues. These "other" issues have to do with responsibilities and ethics of land stewardship. Even though much of the history of the West (or at least the mythology of the West) has been written in terms of individual rights and responsibilities, there has always been lurking in the shadows of conscience the public side of life and the responsibilities that accrue to living in communities, in regions, in nations, and on Earth. To highlight some of these issues consider the following: (1) responsibilities to maintain clean air and water systems; and (2) responsibilities to provide habitat for communities of species that keep landscapes functioning as forests, as marshlands, as prairies, etc. to form the environment that nurtures the variety of life that provides both sustenance and quality for our own existence?

What are we to do, if anything, to try to maintain the functions of the biosphere that cleanse both air and water throughout the world? Many of those functions are performed by our forests, rangelands, marshlands, and estuaries. Also, what value do we find in the presence of other species with whom we share the Earth? We commonly recognize and mourn the loss of each species that vanishes from the planet (at least those few that we hear about--or even know about) but we seem to forget that these 'other' species do not recognize our so-called property rights and often fall victim to human endeavors.

Where Might We Find Reasonable and Responsible Land and Resource Management?

What difference does it make who manages the land? Is local control better? Is it always better? If local control is deemed better, then for whom is it better? Just local people? Just some of the "locals"? Is it better for whatever is judged to be "public good" or "common good"? Is it likely better for future generations of locals? For future generations of humans generally? Better for future generations of many species that share the Earth? These are the type questions we ought to be discussing, but like in so many other controversies we get distracted by those seeking to convince us of the superiority of their views without attempting to give us a whole picture.

Instead of discussing these primary questions first, and focusing attention on how best to use money as a second-order consideration, we too often tend to approach the problem the other-way-around. So we see statements suggesting that if the states took possession of, say, Bureau of Land Management lands "in the long run, Western states would very likely be better off and the lands more efficiently managed and more beneficially used" (Nelson 1994, p.7). The foregoing statement comes from Robert Nelson in an essay titled "Transferring Federal Lands in the West to the States: How would it work?". Nelson is an 18 year veteran of the Department of Interior's policy analysis unit, and is now a professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland. Nelson's short essay is characteristic of much that we see from those promoting the transfer and/or sale of federal lands.

In "Transferring Federal Lands...", Nelson lays out the revenues and costs of Bureau of Land Management federal administration, including the fact that, with exceptions in New Mexico and Wyoming, in all Western states outlays by the Federal Government for BLM management exceed the revenues received. Then he suggests (as if it goes without saying) that the states "would no doubt act to reduce the costs of the bloated BLM bureaucracy." He also describes the management options that the states would (or could) try: manage some or all land at the state level, transfer land to local governments, create public corporations, contract with nonprofit groups to manage lands, offer long term leases or 'privatize' some lands outright. A lynchpin argument seems to be that "state control would allow for much greater innovation and experimentation." It is as if the states are by nature much less bureaucratic than the federal government; that they are much more open to new ideas and less set in their ways. Maybe they are. But maybe they are not.

Arguments that Nelson and others bring to the table are only germane when placed in context. Absent context how could we get to the heart of this or any other issue? What is at issue, it seems, is: Who are we as a people? What is our heritage? What heritage are we to leave to those who follow in our footsteps? Some of our collective desire to leave a proud heritage is wrapped up in the noble goals embodied in federal land and resource law. What are we to do, for example, about habitat needs for species that have grown up and flourished in Western wildlands? What about the access to relatively undeveloped public lands (also strictly undeveloped lands in primitive areas and wilderness areas) for recreation and spiritual renewal that so many take for granted? Would this access be retained in proposals for changing management? If so, where and at what cost to the user? What about the 'attraction value' that accrues to lands adjacent or in close proximity to federal set-asides from development? Are Sun Valley, ID, Jackson Hole, WY, Whitefish, MT, Telluride, Aspen, Vail, CO, Taos, NM, Moab, UT valuable in their own right as isolated communities filled with rather rich inhabitants? Or are the values somehow generated from the intertwining of private and public lands and the unspoken trust that the public lands are to remain intact?

To be fair, Nelson does address these issues with a broad brush in his article and in much more detail in his recent book Public Lands and Private Rights. Incidentally, Public Lands and Private Rights is an excellent source-refenence for backgound on set-up and administration of federal land and resource management agencies, whether or not one is inclinded to agree with Nelson's prescriptive remedys. Also it is not clear that Nelson is too firmly tied to his prescriptions for transferring federal lands to the states. In a recent article titled "Beyond the Progressive Paradigm" Nelson lays out ideas for decentralizing national forest management without transferring the lands outright (Nelson 1995(b)). Still, to gain a perspective of Nelson's ideas on state management compared to federal management consider his summary in "Transferring Federal Lands....":

I agree with Nelson that now is the time for an "informed debate" on the merits and drawbacks of all types of land ownership. But I also believe, along with Paul Hirt, author of A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests Since World War II (1994), that it does little good to focus blame on any one party for the state of affairs we find ourselves in right now. We all got here together, and ought to be grateful for the many wonderful things we've accomplished along the way. But we should also be aware that we got to where we now stand at no small price in terms of environmental amenities, and arguably environmental necessities in terms of clean air, clean water, and more complex life support systems, etc. It is time to begin to discuss what path we will take into the future. We have hard decisions ahead and it will do little good to dissipate our energy pointing fingers at each other. Much better, I believe, to begin to discuss approaches to democratic participation that make sense today and use history as a means mainly to provide context for today's policy discussions (Kemmis 1990, Toffler and Toffler 1995, Wilkinson 1992).

In Sum

Yes, public land management is expensive. Federal government administration is expensive, as noted by all recent administrations as well as the Congress. So is a new home, a new car, or even most vacations we Americans take. But that is not to argue that we should abandon government improvement efforts. Government should be improved, and if the Government Performance Act of 1993 ever takes hold some of the costs of federal administration will better balance with the beneficial outcomes from that administration. And in part that balance will develop, assuming that it develops at all, due to partnerships between federal, state, county, and municipal government administrations working in concert with other organizations hand-in-glove for better government in general rather than locked in head-to-head competition one with another. As we begin to discuss these matters maybe we can find better roles for government generally and specifically in the hierarchy from local to federal government. But to ask right now, out-of-context, if federal government administration is too expensive is to ask a question anchored in air. Throughout the government, agencies at all levels are busy redefining their respective roles and attempting to find ways to work together for better and shared outcomes. But in doing so they are bucking tides of 200 years of procedure and protocol, laying out respective "turf to be protected and lines of competition". It will be a painful process to effect what Vice President Al Gore described as a government that works better and costs less. On balance, it looks likely that there are no easy resolutions to federal lands dilemma. Simple schemes to transfer federal lands to states or counties, will very likely create more problems than are resolved.

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