By Donella Meadows
–October 12, 1995–
There’s a virulent movement in the West and now in the Congress to give federal lands “back” to the states — as if the states had ever owned them.
Of course the original owners were the Native Americans. In the West the Spanish took the lands, then the American people either bought or fought for them. Those American people lived in the East. The Western states didn’t exist yet. (Just thought, since the issue has come up, we ought to get the history straight.)
Then the Easterners, through their federal government, gave the land away. They gave 287 million acres to homesteaders, 94 million acres to railroad companies, 61 million acres to veterans, and (Westerners please note) 328 million to the newly forming states.
Hundreds of millions of acres of deserts, mountains, and high plains went unclaimed. They became the core of what we now know as the federal lands. Since then some lands have been bought and sold, some Eastern lands have become federalized, Alaska has been added to the legacy. The upshot is that each citizen of this blessed nation now holds a share in 726 million acres of federal land.
You and I own the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Utah Canyonlands, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Everglades. The Appalachian Trail and the battlefield at Gettysburg are ours, as are the snow-bright peaks of Mt. Hood in Oregon and Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. No other people in the world hold such a huge treasure in common for the benefit of everyone.
One-fourth of our nation’s area is federal land. Three out of four acres are privately owned. (Just threw that in to quiet the folks who get hysterical about the government taking over the whole country — though in some Western states it may feel as if that’s happened. Over 80 percent of Nevada is federal land, and two-thirds of Alaska.)
Common ownership means we have to share the lands fairly and manage them jointly. Those two tasks have never been easy. They get harder as our numbers grow and as private lands are more fully exploited. Most of us have paid no attention to the management of our lands, and so, like any unguarded treasure, they have attracted thieves, some of whom are now in Congress. They are aiming to legalize their pilfering and that of their friends through four basic strategies:
1. Sell the lands or their resources to corporations or individuals, usually at less than market value,
2. Give them to the states, where bribes are cheaper than they are in Washington,
3. Slash federal funds for administering the lands, so unlawful exploiters won’t get caught,
4. Waive, weaken, or eliminate the laws that regulate exploitation of the lands.
We owners had better wake up. The first thing we need to do is take an inventory of what we’ve got and what condition it’s in.
The largest chunk of our land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, not-so-fondly known as the BLM. BLM land totals about 268 million acres, nearly all in Alaska and 11 Western states. Much of this land is used by ranchers for grazing. (Some would say abusive overgrazing at a bargain price.) Virtually any other use is permitted, from mining to hiking to roaring around in all-terrain vehicles. The BLM lands are the ones the Congress wants to give to the states.
The next biggest asset is run by the National Forest Service — 191 million acres in 44 states. By law these forests should be managed for recreation, wildlife, and long-term timber production. Lately they have been run like a business in liquidation. Timber cuts have gone far over sustainable yields, clearcuts erode steep slopes, logging rights have been sold so cheap that the Forest Service (and thus the taxpayer) loses money on nearly every deal.
Our National Wildlife Refuges, managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, amount to 87.4 million acres. The first priority on these lands is supposed to be wildlife protection. Hunting, fishing, and other recreational uses are allowed, and sometimes livestock grazing and mineral extraction. Some folks in the current Congress think it’s a great idea to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Then there are the crown jewels, the National Parks. There are 368 of them, covering 77 million acres in 49 states. No logging, mining, or other extractive activities (except extracting money from tourists) are allowed on these scenic lands. Tourist concessions in the parks are lucrative monopolies for which our managers collect too little rent. Some of the parks are overcrowded; there are arguments about building more roads and hotels. Some Republicans in Congress think we should sell off parks to balance the budget.
The remaining federal lands are used by the military (and contain some of the nation’s worst toxic dumps) or for federal buildings and monuments.
You can see that our lands are being managed more for the short term good of a few people than for the long-term good of all. As with other issues, this Congress has done the right thing to bring this problem to public attention. And as with other issues, most of the solutions Congress is coming up with will make things worse.
EDITORS, IF YOU DON”T WANT TO RUN THE SERIES, STOP HERE.
It will take more than the space of one column to spin out the justifications for that statement, so tune into this space over the next few weeks for closer looks at how mining, logging, and grazing rights are distributed, how wilderness is protected, and how Congress wants to change all that.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995