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“This land is your land, this land is my land” – Woody Guthrie

It seems cruelly ironic that “public” forms the core of “republican” since the core of the current “Republican” party is fundamental hostility to anything preceded by “public”: Public education, public transportation, public health, public libraries, public safety, public housing, public radio, public television, and yes, public lands. Any of these could be fodder for a lengthy discourse, but what I’m going to focus on is public lands: all public lands; those public lands administered through the Interior Department as National Parks, National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Wildlife Refuges and public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and public lands administered through the Agriculture Department’s U. S. Forest Service as National Forests.

As America expanded westward it acquired lands from France, England, Mexico and Russia. These lands were acquired by the federal government on behalf of American citizens and form the basis for federal ownership of land. The vast majority of this acquired land was subsequently disposed of, to individuals, corporations and states. States, as a condition of becoming a state, gave up claims to federal lands within their borders, but were granted extensive acreages for the benefit of various institutions. For much of the country’s history the major federal agency involved in the management of Federal Lands was the General Land Office (GLO).

The GLO was involved in the survey and disposal of the Public Lands through the various land grants and disposals authorized by laws like the Mining Law (1872), the Homestead Act (1862), the Desert Land Entry Act (1877) and various railroad land grants, among many others. In 1891 the Forest Reserve Act was the beginning of the National Forest system, formalized by the establishment of the Forest Service in 1905. In 1934 congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act which was the beginning of the Grazing Service. The Taylor Grazing Act was passed in response to widespread degradation of the Public Lands through serious overgrazing. In 1946 the Bureau of Land Management was formed through the consolidation of the GLO and the Grazing Service.

Interest in Public Lands grew steadily through the 1960s ultimately resulting in the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) in 1976 which established retention of Public Lands and a multiple use mandate similar to the Forest Service Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960.


Resistance to the federal/public ownership has always been present to some extent, highlighted by the “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1980s. This has varied from selling off the Public Lands to “returning the land” to the states.

This took the form of GOP policy in 2016 which supported transferring the Public Lands to the Western States. Western state republicans have been leery of formal support for disposal of Public Lands as it has limited political support to stand on its own as policy. What we will see instead is continued and expanding underfunding of natural resource and land management agencies and continuing staff reduction. This continued underfunding and increase in various user fees (Ryan Zinke I’m looking at you and the increase in National Park entrance fees) will, as user pressure continues to increase, result in increasing user conflicts with essentially totally inadequate staff to keep up. A demoralized and demonized staff of public employees led by people with a fundamental hostility to the agency mission will make effective land management untenable. And in conjunction with renewed emphasis on “partnerships” with corporations, the public part of the Public Lands will wither.


This collective stealth attack on public lands will lead inevitably to increased user conflicts best exemplified by the current drive to open wilderness areas to mountain bikes. There is NO groundswell to open wilderness areas to mountain bikes. Rather a fringe group in the mountain bike community has convinced GOP congressman to carry this forward. It is little more than a thinly disguised cut at the Wilderness Act itself. Much like Secretary Zinke’s attack on National Monuments is a thinly disguised attack on public lands.

Ultimately the chaos and dysfunction this concerted attack leads to will enable GOP lawmakers to declare “We really support public lands but this country just can’t afford the high cost of Public Land”. We’ll have to turn the land over to the states.

If you’re even remotely familiar with state budgets in the western U. S. you quickly understand they can’t possibly bear the typical annual firefighting costs a warming climate brings, let alone actually managing the land. The land would be sold and the 1% of the population that owns 40% of U. S. wealth, would own this as well.

Public lands are under threat! Pay close attention!

“Don’t it always seem to go you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” – Joni Mitchell

-- Dave Williams, of Butte, is a geologist, outdoorsman and president of the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, the local EPA TAG Group.

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