I’ve been putting this writing off for months, because putting fingers to keys and pixels to ‘net admits that there are things which need to be said about keeping public lands public. Today, there absolutely are, and that admission is in itself a sad statement.
I remain acutely skeptical that the current movement to transfer federal lands into state custody will ever come to anything substantive, but the opponents are sure taking the whole mess seriously, which has produced more than enough dialogue to frame the debate.
Sadly, this has mostly taken place on economic terms. The heirs of the Sagebrush Rebellion maintain that state governments and local towns are loosing potential revenue due to federal complacency, while the heirs of Roosevelt trot out vague statistics to demonstrate why states would not be able to shoulder the management burden.
“US federal land.agencies” by National Atlas of the United States – http://nationalatlas.gov/printable/fedlands.html, “All Federal and Indian Lands“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Of course, all this discussion is very much besides the point. Federal land was, starting in the late 1800s and more rapidly in the first quarter of the 20th century, set aside specifically against obvious economic motivations. Preservation was the word when the Adirondacks and Yosemite became state parks, and Yellowstone a national park. Long-term economic arguments about how tourism is superior to extractive industries only followed. That tourism is the most economically use of public lands is a fait accompli, as demonstrated by the states-rights rhetoric being restricted to only wanting a little more logging/mining/roads while maintaining or increasing tourist infrastructure. The problem is that these pro-states arguments are almost identical to those made a century ago. It’s an obscure and uncommon thesis, but the conservation/preservation, public lands ownership and use debate made the Republican party what it is today, and the zenith of that debate between 1910 and 1912 is when the GOP ceased to be the party of Lincoln and started to become the party of Reagan.
TR left the White House in 1908, denying himself a certain third term. Given that he had assumed office after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt had a strong claim to a second elective term, as well as the sort of popularity which would have guaranteed him a win. At the national convention, Henry Cabot Lodge had to intervene multiple times to prevent TR from being nominated by acclamation. William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, was TRs hand-picked successor, in no small part because Roosevelt thought Taft the most likely to continue his policies, Unfortunately for Taft, once elected he proved too malleable or indifferent to stand up to industry, and supported either outright or by default significant erosions of TRs conservation work. Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, and made moves to undo the designation of the enormous and visionary Tongass National Forest. TR valued these things, and the ideals they represented, so much that he was compelled to run against Taft in 1912. He failed to win the Republican nomination, and as a Bull Moose candidate in the general election outperformed Taft, splitting the vote and guaranteeing the victory of Woodrow Wilson.
The presidents who followed Wilson have mixed records on conservation, but the overarching narrative is universally in support of conservation and the value of federal lands. National Parks came to be called America’s best idea, Alaska still has a robust salmon fishery, old growth forest still exists in pockets of most western states, and free or cheap opportunities for recreation of all types could as of 2015 occupy many lifetimes. There are many particulars which could be improved, especially wildfire management, but it’s hard to see arguments against the current regime of federal land management as anything other than variations on Cliven Bundy; ahistorical, myopic, and selfish.
Folks are hesitant to say this out loud, and even more hesitant to state what I see as the central point in the debate: the states are too hasty and subject to the winds of public opinion to be good custodians of public land. This is especially true of states like Montana where term limits and biannual legislative sessions have maintained a tradition of true citizen legislators. Like the US Senate, experiencing federal land management in real time can be frustrating, but is the least-worst option. Ecosystems dwell in extra-human time scales, and thus government must be stretched a fair bit to suit it. Land conservation has in the past century been one of the largest success stories in North America. The pushback against it is probably the last kick before the death of a 20th century view about the unalloyed preeminence of the western human, an ideology about which conservation only tells a small part. Insofar as it’s a coherent entity, I can’t take it seriously, but it would be foolish to underestimate it’s advocates.
The legacy of the 21st century will be rewilding littoral areas, and cultivating a less adversarial relationship with the wild which will make it easier for predators to reassimilate. But it will not come easily or with good grace. Be patient and, where necessary, make your voice heard. In the western states that probably means now.