By Donella Meadows
–November 16, 1995–
“The federal government is a lousy neighbor,” says Congressman Wes Cooley (R-Oregon). He’s speaking for a bunch of folks, mostly Westerners, who find it maddening to live near any of the 726 million acres of land owned jointly by them, you, me, and all other U.S. citizens.
Their complaint is that we collectively won’t let them do what they want on our land, whether it’s graze cattle, drive trucks, cut trees, or divert water. Too many papers to fill out. Too many distant bureaucrats. Too many things they used to be able to do that they can’t do any more.
Some of these folks are inflamed enough to throw bombs at Forest Service offices or take recreational potshots at rangers. Officials of Catron County in New Mexico and Nye County in Nevada have flat-out declared themselves the owners of the federal lands within their county borders.
Then there’s another bunch who are mad at federal land managers for the opposite reason — lax restrictions, weak enforcement, suspicious coziness with timber and mining interests. The resources of the people are handed out to profiteers in exchange for well-aimed campaign contributions. Our forests are overcut, ranges overgrazed, waters polluted, mountains gouged by mines. We taxpayers lose $1-2 billion a year on public land giveaways, not counting the unmeasurable loss of wildlife, soils, water quality, and beauty.
So one mob of unruly citizens blocks logging trucks in national forests in Oregon, while another mob sues the feds for removing illegal cattle from Nevada BLM land. No one is happy with the management of the national lands — and everyone has suggestions for what to do.
Some say we should keep the most beloved places — the Grand Canyon, say, and the Gettysburg battlefield — and give the rest to the states. The feds are incompetent, corrupt, and too far away to manage well even if they managed in good faith. The states can do better. Federal lands lose money, but on the whole the 135 million acres of state lands turn a profit. New York does fine managing the “forever wild” Adirondack Park, 35 percent larger than Yellowstone.
But some Adirondack neighbors are just as mad at New York as National Forest neighbors are mad at the feds, and for the same reasons. And of course all states aren’t exactly models of competence or integrity. Montana had some of strongest water pollution laws in the nation but recently rewrote them as a favor to the mining industry. Idaho routinely ignores environmental laws on state lands. Wyoming just reinstated a bounty on timber wolves. And citizens of Massachusetts might want to have a say if Tennessee decided to clearcut the Great Smoky Mountains — or citizens of Tennessee might care if Massachusetts turned the Cape Cod National Seashore into Atlantic City.
Heck with the states, heck with government, put the lands in private hands, some say. Private owners have incentive to manage their resources wisely. Frankly, I think only city people can believe that argument. Out on the land everyone knows people who decided to clearcut a 30-degree slope, or strip off topsoil, or dump a barrel of suspicious content off in their very own woods. Corporate landowners regularly strip long-term assets to pay off short-term debt. On company land in the Northwest there are no old-growth forests left. Some landowners are stewards and some are exploiters, and the land only needs to fall into the hands of the latter once to be scarred for centuries.
How about letting nonprofits manage the land? The Sierra Club or Nature Conservancy or a state land trust? There are some virtues to this suggestion. The management can be local, and a group is stronger than an individual at resisting pressure to cash in. But we also know that corruption can enter the most righteous places, from the United Way to the radio preacher’s church. Maybe most land trusts haven’t gone crooked only because they have never owned enough resources to attract crooks.
Let’s face it. The precious national lands, God’s creation, nature’s magnificence, our common birthright, have to be managed by human beings, who are fallible alone or in any combination. The management job gets ever harder, because the world is filling up. The human population is huge, still growing, full of honest aspiration and greedy schemes. On all sorts of lands forests are disappearing, mines are depleting, grasslands are overgrazed, nature is disappearing. Our national lands contain some of the few remnants of intact ecosystems in the world. Those remnants depend on us — not to manage them, but to manage ourselves so we keep them glorious and productive and whole.
National or state or county government, private individuals or groups — who can be trusted? None of them at the moment, given the system in which they operate. If we want the controllers of the lands, whoever they are, to be wise, far-sighted, compassionate, efficient, honest, and accountable to the people, we have to change the system. The two most powerful ways I can think of to do that are first, thoroughgoing campaign reform, so money has no power over government. And second, heavy investment in the education of the people, so they understand their land, the living creatures it supports, and all the dangers and possibilities.
If we did those things, it wouldn’t matter who managed the lands, and we’d solve a lot of other problems too.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995