What in the world is going on with our public lands? Well, the so-called “public lands” are such a convoluted aberration of the U.S. Constitution in the establishment of states that they cannot be realistically protected, managed and used for the benefit of the states and the peoples therein.
This year several hundred thousand acres of public lands have burned and some people are upset by it and others are quietly applauding it, saying it was needed. Now our Senator is proposing securing money to protect the watersheds that were damaged by the fires, while a Congresswoman is trying to lock up more lands from being used and managed. Other people want to plant more wolves while others want to protect a weed they found. Old roads and trails must be closed, but wait, we need more ATV roads and mountain bike trails for recreation, but that can’t be done because they might disturb a bird or discover an old ruin. The call has been out to remove cattle and sheep to make room for more elk and deer. Paddle boarding, water skiing and fishing are the new high priority for water over agriculture irrigation. The list can go on, but this raises three questions:
Why do we have “public lands”? What are they for? Who controls them?
Why do we have “public” lands? Simple answer is, Congress screwed up (deliberately), and the state did nothing about it. The basic foundation in the U.S. Constitution denies the federal government from owning or controlling any land within a state not specifically designated in the Constitution and approved by the state. At statehood, the Feds held on to all the unclaimed lands, supposedly to sell them into private ownership on behalf of and for the state, which never happened. Those lands were later turned into parks and national forests and public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Along came the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act that declared all of the above as “public lands” and would be kept by the federal government in perpetuity, not sold as promised, rather controlled/owned by the federal government for all the people of the United States, which was not consistent with the Constitution. Today, people may argue that it was a good thing it was done. Well, good or bad, it was done contrary to and in violation of the Rule of Law that we claim to abide by, resulting in today’s numerous and varied disputes over lands, natural resources and economies.
So what are these “public” lands to be used for? Well, look first at how they started out. The forest lands originally were to be protected and improved “to secure favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber”, as per the Forest Service Organic Administration Act of 1897. The forests were open for “all lawful purposes, including prospecting.” They could be used for schools and churches, free use of timber and stone for domestic purposes.
That was all expanded and more regulated under the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960. Benefits and revenues were mostly for local communities and counties. In 1976, the Federal Lands Policy Management Act (FLPMA) enabled National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) to unofficially redefine multiple use as “Multiple Protection” using the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). The numerous “Single Interest” protections on any given land area has ended true “multiple use” and improvement on most of the once “public lands.”
When you include the Wilderness Protection Act of 1964, where there is no beneficial use and improvement of the forests allowed, the results are exactly what has been expected and we have experienced this year with the destructive wildfires.
Wait, aren’t these “public” lands? They belong to all of us so why aren’t they managed, used and protected for us, the public? You say, “I am the public, so they should be managed the way I think they should”! Hmm, I have some ocean front property in Arizona I will sell you! Wake up, the lands are not your public lands.
Who is the “public”? In theory that would be the beach bum in Hawaii to the croc hunter in the Louisiana swamps, to the New Jersey mafia don to the New York Times editor and all in between. But they don’t know or care about the “public lands” in Colorado, however, by law they do have as much say over what happens on the public forest land right behind your house as you do. Everyone has a totally different view of what should be done on “their” public lands. The end result is the usual “public” tax-exempt Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) with money and political influence claim to represent all the public interests, ultimately controls the “public” lands using the aforementioned federal acts, all for their individual benefits and those of their big corporate benefactors. This involves 36 percent of the most valuable lands and resources of the state.
Can we stop the degradation and devastation of the public lands and improve local health and economy? It could be possible by correcting the 1876 statehood origin of the federal government owning and controlling the states’ lands, followed by the individual counties having decision authority over management and use of the state public lands within each county. Can it happen? Yes! Will it happen? Not likely in what is left of my lifetime. However, the end of a thousand mile journey begins with the first step!
Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.