Western Myths and Realities: As Federal Land Management Continues to Flounder, More Political Leaders Are Calling for a Transfer of Public Land Control to the States. (Public Lands)

By Nelson, Robert H. | Regulation, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Western Myths and Realities: As Federal Land Management Continues to Flounder, More Political Leaders Are Calling for a Transfer of Public Land Control to the States. (Public Lands)


Nelson, Robert H., Regulation


IN THE 1980 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN, RONALD Reagan gained notoriety for joining the "Sagebrush Rebels" in their call for the transfer of federal lands in the West to state ownership. By 1990, support for decentralization was becoming a bipartisan phenomenon as such figures as Daniel Kemmis, the former Democratic majority leader of the Montana Senate and later the mayor of Missoula, stated that the West "cannot transcend its colonial heritage until it gains a much more substantial measure of indigenous control over its own land and resources." By 2000, when the Andrus Center in Idaho called together a bipartisan group of governors and other political leaders in the West to discuss the future of public lands, there was wide agreement that "public land policy and its implementation should be decentralized wherever feasible." In just a quarter-century, the demand for decentralization had spread from a group of perceived radicals to major leaders of the West's political establishment.

The broadening call represents a major break with the model of public land management that prevailed through most of the twentieth century. It reflects a wide disillusionment with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) -- the two main public land agencies. Over the past decade, countless researchers have documented the failings of public land management -- its inefficiency, gridlock, continuing capture by special interests, and inability to plan effectively. Even the General Accounting Office has come to accept that view; in a 1997 report to Congress on public lands, GAO analysts concluded, "In summary, ... the Forest Service's decision-making process is broken."

The transformation in the perception of U.S. land management agencies, which once were hailed for their innovation and efficiency, took place slowly over a half-century. To trace the transformation, we must consider the agencies' mission in the early part of the last century and then recognize how that mission changed and how various outside forces increasingly manipulated the agencies.

SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT

In the progressive era of the early 1900s, the federal government abandoned its nineteenth-century practice of signing over federal lands to private owners and state governments. Instead, the progressives demanded that the lands be retained in federal ownership and managed according to the political philosophy of "scientific management." Under that philosophy, the democratic process would set the broad policy objectives for the lands and professional experts would then execute the management details, free of political interference. That vision reflected a great faith in science and economic progress as found in the progressive "gospel of efficiency." Among the consequences of the progressive design, it acted to centralize management authority at the federal level, empower professionals relative to politicians, and diminish the roles for state and local democracy.

Environmentalism's emergence In 1964, Congress's enactment of the Wilderness Act marked the rise of a new force in public land management: the environmental movement. Public land management since then has been mostly a story of the interactions of environmentalists with the institutional legacies of the progressive era.

Environmentalism introduced a new skepticism of the technocratic vision on which the Forest Service had been founded. Science, the environmentalists believed, was neither as valuefree nor as powerful an instrument for understanding human affairs as had been expected. As the atom bomb and chemical damages to the environment had shown, scientific progress was not necessarily the savior of the world, but could in fact be a double-edged sword.

In the 1970s, many critics--including then-emerging environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council -- began asserting that federal public land agencies had failed to live up to their progressive ideals. …

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Western Myths and Realities: As Federal Land Management Continues to Flounder, More Political Leaders Are Calling for a Transfer of Public Land Control to the States. (Public Lands)
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