Valuing Nature: Economic Analysis and Public Land Management, 1975-2000

By Nelson, Robert H. | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Valuing Nature: Economic Analysis and Public Land Management, 1975-2000


Nelson, Robert H., The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


More federal environmental laws were passed in the 1970s than in any previous decade of American history. It amounted to a complete rewrite of the statutory foundations of U.S. environmental management and policy. The Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972) are the best known, but many important laws also were enacted in other environmental areas. For the public lands, there were five key laws--the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA, signed on New Year Day, 1970); the Endangered Species Act (1973); the National Forest Management Act (1976); the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976); and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (technically not a 1970s law, since it was enacted in 1980, but largely written in the 1970s). This body of legislation set new goals and decision-making procedures for public land institutions that in many cases had been operating under statutory guidance dating back to the progressive era.

The federal government owns about 30 percent of the land area of the United States. The largest amounts are managed by two agencies, the U.S. Forest Service in the Agriculture Department, created in 1905, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Interior Department, created in 1946. Significant federal lands are also managed by the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Defense Department (the Bureau of Indian Affairs is a trustee for tribal lands that are not a part of the federal lands). Historically, however, common usage limits the term "public lands" to those areas managed by the Forest Service and the BLM (Gates 1968; Dana and Fairfax 1980). The former include 192 million acres and the latter 264 million acres, mostly in the West, and in total equal to 20 percent of the U.S. land area.

About half the coal reserves of the United States and large amounts of oil and gas lie under these public lands. Indeed, total mineral royalties from federally owned resources equaled $9.4 billion in FY 2005. The national forests, managed by the Forest Service, alone contain 46 percent of the softwood timber inventory of the United States (Pacific Northwest Research Station 2003). Since the 1960s, the traditional commercial uses of these resources have increasingly come into conflict with the protection of environmental assets. The use of public lands for hiking, skiing, backpacking, mountain climbing, picnicking, and other recreational activities has soared since World War II. The public lands also contain many of the less populated mountain and desert areas of the nation, including many places now designated formally as wilderness areas.

According to the law, the uses of the public lands are mainly to be decided as administrative decisions of the federal land agencies. The Forest Service and the BLM are legally guided by a management philosophy of "multiple use and sustained yield." In practice, however, the lands historically have been allocated to the groups with the greatest political influence (Anderson and Hill 1994). Cattle and sheep ranchers dominated the management of grazing lands; the most valuable forests were made available to timber companies; mining companies acquired mineral-rich lands; and so forth (Foss 1960; Wilkinson 1992). As they sought to challenge these arrangements, environmentalists faced a large political hurdle: How could they prevail against the traditional groups in order to win greater access for recreational and other environmentally-oriented uses? Moreover, environmentalists in some cases were not seeking a particular use of the lands but to minimize any kind of use at all. In a wilderness area, even recreational activities are to some extent a compromise with the goal of keeping the land as little touched by human hand as possible.

When confronted in the 1960s and 1970s with growing environmental pressures, the Forest Service and BLM were forced to defend their decision-making processes in newly explicit terms. …

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