Preserving the Public Trust: Public Lands Management Must Reflect Both Local and National Priorities

Article excerpt

About 25 percent of lands in the United States--some 623 million acres--are publicly owned and belong to all Americans. These lands are held in trust for this and future generations and managed by agencies of the federal government, primarily the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. (1) Our public lands are an important part of our heritage. They provide a wide variety of benefits to society, including clean water for human, industrial, and environmental use; outstanding recreational opportunities; habitat for rare and endangered wildlife; world-renowned scenic and wilderness areas; laboratories for scientific study and discovery; reservoirs for biological diversity; and commodities like logs, minerals, and forage.

Many of these important benefits are found primarily, if not exclusively, on public lands, often as a result of environmental legislation that provides greater protection for public lands. For example, in California, where the timber industry considers the state's rules for forest practices to be the most stringent in the country, public land managers are held to higher environmental protection standards than the private timber land owners. Another clear example can be found in the Endangered Species Act, which can require federal land managers to take more protective action than private land owners when an endangered species is located in the same area.

As a matter of national policy, the great importance of meaningful public participation in decisions affecting our public lands is both longstanding and clear. Public participation in government decisions is a cornerstone of our democracy that can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson and other framers of the Constitution. Americans have long demonstrated their interest in being part of government decisions, most visibly by voting in elections, but also in myriad other ways such as working with government agencies to implement laws and programs created by Congress and other legislative institutions. Not surprisingly, this involvement includes decisions that affect environmental policy.

However, the existing decision-making process has come under increasing fire, in part for failing to involve citizens more in decisions affecting public land management. Relying mostly on little more than anecdotal evidence, some policymakers eagerly promote increased decision making at the local level, claiming that local people know best how to manage their resources. Arguing that federal land management decision makers need to be more responsive to public input, consensus groups and various groups described as collaboratives have formed to push for local control of public lands.

The Wilderness Society rejects this view. Local input into environmental decision making does allow land managing agencies to adapt to local conditions and implement existing laws to better manage natural resources. But local control over environmental management of federal lands can only dilute environmental standards and weaken the laws and regulations that protect public land.

Public Participation

In numerous statutes and regulations, land managers are instructed to involve the public. For example, the National Forest Management Act requires the Forest Service to consult with the public in the development of national forest management plans. Other environmental laws as varied as the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Federal Land Policy Management Act require decision makers to involve the public. (2) But the foundation for public participation in all federal decisions is the National Environmental Policy Act?

Public participation is an essential part of NEPA. The regulations implementing NEPA establish procedures "to encourage public participation...at the earliest possible time." (4) With its emphasis on public participation and information disclosure, NEPA encourages citizens to be involved in environmental decision making and it forces federal, state, and local government agencies to coordinate their environmental planning efforts. …