Growing up in a Cleveland suburb, the only public land I knew was a city block of lawn with a cannon in the center, left over from the War of 1812. Other than that, the land was taken up with housing developments, tomato farms, and other private property — no trespassing. When my husband and I moved to Colorado, the very idea of public land astonished us – land owned by everyone, shared by everyone — and so did the expanse of it – miles and miles of grasslands and prairie lakes, range after range of snow-capped mountains. A friend explained the difference between a national park and a national forest, and we hit the trails, thrilled by the most spectacular country we had ever seen. In our eyes, public land was a great gift from the past to the future, a model of foresight and restraint.
When we moved to Oregon, we were again astonished at the great expanse of public land, open to everybody. You could start walking on public land and a month later, you would still be walking on public land, there was that much of it. But we quickly learned that the land was not so much shared, as it was contested. ‘Multiple use’ meant ‘multiple battles’ and an innocent owl perched bleakly against destruction. ‘National wildlife refuge’ could mean ‘place to kill ducks,’ ‘national forest’ could mean ‘national stumps,’ and sometimes ‘Native subsistence rights’ meant ‘nothing.’
Now we live much of the year in Alaska, which has far more public land than private. This year, we arrived at our little coastal cabin on a day when Anchorage was hotter than Miami, and 132 wildfires burned in Alaska, many of them in tundra, which used to be the soggiest land on Earth. Our place is right in the middle of the Tongass National Forest, a huge roadless area of giant forests and misty, bear-graced bays. Or I should say, at the moment it’s a roadless area, but Alaska’s own senator is doing her best to transfer public lands to private hands, which will truck the ancient timber down new gravel roads to Asia-bound freighters.
It’s all terribly confusing and impossibly arcane. Our movement across the country in a little Datsun was our own small retracing of the march of manifest destiny. From east to west, from closed to open, from private to public, from small to vast, from settled to wild, from mine to ours, from used-up to open-for-business, from realtors to squatters with guns – in 3,336 miles, an inconceivable shift from one kind of place to another. It is no wonder that we are confused by the politics of public land. From all outward appearances, public land is a push-me, pull-you contest played out with political power and cold, hard cash; well-meaning and whiplashed government employees and oil-tainted politicians; Native activists on horseback and troopers in riot gear; fleets of white pickup trucks and a sage-grouse with a ridiculous dance; and some of the most glorious land on the planet, maybe in the universe.
I would not have thought that anyone could make any sense of the values and politics of public land. So many agencies, so many competing interests, and two warring worldviews – at the extremes, one seeing land as a storehouse of resources to be exploited for the personal gain of the exploiters and the economic growth of the nation, the other seeing land as fecund, life-sustaining ecosystems that are beautiful manifestations of the creative urgency of the planet, to be protected and honored.
But in this volume, Erika Allen Wolters and Brent Steel have brought together the experts who can explain the evolution of public lands policies and politics in all their complexities. While their subject is complex, their prose is clear; and while their subject is torn by some of the most viciously self-interested, deceitful arguments in politics today, their prose is calm, factual, and evenhanded. No one should underestimate what a rare and valuable gift this is.
It is essential to understand without prejudice how decisions are and will be made about America’s public lands, because the fate of public lands is essential to America. This, in at least two ways: On one hand, these playas and mountains are settings for battles over what use will be made of what pieces of land, and to whose benefit and at what cost to others. These decisions will have significant, long-range tangible consequences. How much atmospheric and oceanic warming will flare from the fracking fields on public lands, and what suffering will it cause over how many millennia? How many and which species will survive the sixth extinction? What will be the long-range health consequences of mining practices? What terrible feedback loops will swirl from what wildfires? What lands will be open for the refugees from climate chaos and the billionaire trout-fishermen?
But the second way the fate of public lands is significant to America has to do with the fate of the idea of public lands. In 1983, novelist Wallace Stegner wrote that “national parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” What is true of national parks is true even more of public lands in general. It’s a great idea to hold huge chunks of the nation’s land in common, a heritage owned by everybody and nobody, protected in trust for the people and the ecosystems, for the future – not grabbed off, not fenced off, not sold off, but shared for all time. Surely it’s an American idea, as American as the public library, an idea oriented to the future, to the improvement of all, through careful stewardship and sharing of the gifts God has given. Surely, it’s a democratic idea, that everyone has an equal claim to the land, not based on inherited wealth, not based on aristocratic standing or political patronage or private gain, but on ideals of equality and justice.
But just as surely, the idea of public lands reflects us at our best and at our worst. We can work together to save the sage-grouse and the ranch, the spotted owl and the logging community, the salmon and the irrigated fields; humans are able to renounce narrow self-interest and work for the common good. We have shown that we can do this; in kindergarten, we learn how to share. Sharing the land offers a kind of salvation if we can pull it off.
But sometimes it seems that we can’t. Men with guns or four-wheelers will take what they want or believe they deserve, politicians will pander to oil executives with a hankering for dust and money, and bureaucrats will shave the narrow edges of the law. So America’s best idea is in great danger. But even if the reality is dusty and beetle-gnawed and corrupted, the idea endures. And at this moment, this pivotal moment in the history of the planet, public lands may be our last best chance for a huge national thought experiment about an ethic of the common good.