Academic journal article Policy Review

Our Languishing Public Land

Academic journal article Policy Review

Our Languishing Public Land

Article excerpt

A SIDE FROM THE original I3 states on the Eastern seaboard, most of the land in the United States at one time belonged to the federal government--a result of the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican-American War, and other important events in American history. Federal policies for these lands such as the Homestead Act, the railroad land grants, and the land allocations to American Indians were among the most significant American government actions of the 19th century. The overriding policy goal was to transfer the lands out of federal ownership to private owners and to the states, both of whom received hundreds of millions of acres in total. Transferring the lands to new ownership was seen as a first step in putting them to productive use as part of the essential task of building a new nation.

After this 19th-century "era of disposal," the federal government shifted to a policy of retention of the lands in federal ownership around the beginning of the 20th century. It was a reflection of basic new political and economic ideas emerging in the United States during the progressive era. The progressive "gospel of efficiency" preached that scientific management could better serve the nation's needs than the chaotic, trial-and-error processes of the free market. In much of the American economy, large American business corporations were in fact substituting internal private planning and administration for the old decentralized market processes. The progressives, however, were unwilling to transfer the federal lands to such large and concentrated private ownerships. Instead, they sought the scientific management of the lands through the creation of new public agencies with their own comprehensive internal planning and administration. The result was the establishment of the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902, the first federal wildlife refuge in 1903, the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, and the National Park Service in 1916. Democratic socialists advocated similar policies in Europe at the same time, if with less deference given to the need for ultimate democratic control.

Vast areas of federal lands are still present today in the West as the legacy of these progressive-era developments (the Bureau of Land Management, the other federal agency with major land management responsibilities, was not created until 1946, although still as a deferred application of the same progressive principles). Total federal ownership today covers about 50 percent of the land area of the American West. The state of California, remarkably enough, is 45 percent federal land. The lands managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are commonly known as "the public lands."

Like a number of other applications of progressive ideas (regulation of interstate commerce, for example, by the Interstate Commerce Commission), the public lands have failed the test of time. Management of the lands has been neither scientific nor efficient. The old progressive mission of scientific management has been strongly challenged--and indeed sometimes altogether displaced--by new ideas advanced by the environmental movement. Yet, the original progressive institutional forms dating back l00 years remain with us little altered. The result is an antiquated and costly system of public land management that is unsure of cither its goals or methods. There is now approaching a consensus among informed observers that public land management wastes large amounts of money while mainly serving the private interests and other narrow groups that benefit from the lands.

After an initial century of disposal of the lands, and then a second century of federal land retention and direct management, it is time for a new era that will redefine the history of these lands for the 21st century. This will require challenges to longstanding institutions and basic assumptions; such changes are always difficult in government. Long periods may go by in which little of real significance happens. …

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