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OPINION: Why the United States needs to change how it manages public land

Tuesday, 27 October 2020 10:43 GMT

Ruins of ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings at Butler Wash in Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah, U.S., October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Neither political party has an adequate vision for the public lands

By James R. Skillen, author and Associate Professor at Calvin University and Leisl Carr Childers, author and Assistant Professor at Colorado State University

Public lands in the American West are a microcosm of national politics. They are contested spaces where people and interest groups vie for power and where citizens argue for ideals of the nation.

So it isn’t surprising that public lands currently reflect the severe dysfunction of our politics. They have been reduced to partisan symbols in American culture wars, both real and imagined. Their management has become a zero-sum game. Unfortunately, neither party in this election year has an adequate vision for the public lands that could alter this dynamic.

We wonder who really wins in this context. Certainly, the majority of public land users don’t win consistently, as they ride the roller coaster of four-year election cycles. Vulnerable species and fragile ecosystems certainly don’t win consistent protection. Rural western communities suffer, as their economies fluctuate according to both the markets and the elections.

Perhaps the only consistent winners are large mining and energy companies who secure long-term leases and patents to federal resources.

The dysfunction of public land politics is on full display this election year, as each party presses its inadequate agenda. Republicans embrace a libertarian approach, decrying regulations, disparaging relevant science, and demanding that the federal government stay out of managing its own land so that companies and individuals can exploit federal resources without oversight.

And Republicans tend to treat public lands primarily as a storehouse of minerals, oil, gas, coal, timber, forage, fish and wildlife, which does a profound disservice to the majority, by number, of public land users and to public land communities that suffer the boom and bust cycles of natural resource development.

To make matters worse, many Republican leaders have encouraged the kind of extremist opposition to federal land authority evident in self-identified militias and “constitutional sheriffs,” making some areas of the public lands dangerous places to visit and work.

Democrats, by contrast, see public lands as an opportunity for environmental protection that can offset the destruction of landscapes in state and private ownership. To their credit, Democrats often take research science seriously and support the kind of environmental planning and monitoring that leads to informed decisions.

But Democrats also tend to dismiss the real economic and cultural challenges that rural western communities face. The Democratic Party’s base is overwhelmingly urban and suburban, and their engagement with public lands is therefore primarily recreational. So while they have done good work with things like addressing climate mitigation and adaptation in public land management, they have done a poor job reaching out to rural populations that rely upon public lands and building the kinds of coalitions that can bring these plans to fruition no matter which party is in power.  

This brings us to one of the most important aspects of public land politics today: the business of politics itself. Nationally, the cost of congressional and presidential elections have almost tripled since 2000, and money spent on lobbying has doubled in that time. And outside of Congress itself, a vast infrastructure of think tanks, foundations, and public interest organizations represents billions of additional dollars.

These vast sums of money have led to a political arms race with its own momentum, leaving almost no room for creative compromise. Land management agencies are caught in the middle, facing almost continuous litigation over their decisions.

We need a shift in public land politics and management. We argue that one possibility is to listen to federal land managers themselves: BLM district managers, forest and refuge supervisors, and park superintendents. Denigration of bureaucracy is assumed these days, and we aren’t here to celebrate the inefficiencies and tedium sometimes found in bureaucratic processes. Nor do we think that federal land managers should be autonomous since they must be held accountable to voters through Congress and the President.

But we do think that federal land managers have learned important lessons over the years precisely because they are responsible for land management no matter which party is in power. They live in western communities and know some of the unique struggles in each area. They are bound by overarching laws that were passed with bipartisan support, and they are bound by a sense of mission and service.

As a result, their voices should temper the shouting match that is an election year and will identify common ground that lobbyists not only miss but intentionally obscure.