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Public Lands: 
A System In Crisis

In the 21st century, we can expect sweeping changes in the management of public lands.


Evironmental activists, industry representatives, government officials—in fact, virtually all involved parties agree that America’s public lands are being poorly managed. The system not only fails to meet basic environmental standards but is very costly. The shortcomings of the current management system led Jack Ward Thomas, then chief of the U.S. Forest Service, to acknowledge in a 1995 speech that "the evolving situation is politically, economically, and ecologically untenable." To remedy the growing problem, he called for the creation of a national commission to sort out the mission of the public-lands agencies and to review their statutory responsibilities.

The principal federal land-management agencies are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service. All are located in the Department of the Interior, except the Forest Service, which is in the Department of Agriculture.

Many members of the Republican Congress who were elected in 1994 agreed on the need for change but proposed a solution that Thomas and the rest of the Clinton administration rejected. In particular, consistent with a broader strategy of devolving federal responsibilities to states, Republicans in both the House and Senate introduced a bill in 1995 to give states the option of assuming ownership of the public lands currently managed by the BLM. The legislation, however, met intense opposition and never came close to enactment.

The Senate subcommittee on forests and public-lands management, chaired by Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho), held nine hearings in 1995 in what amounted to the most comprehensive congressional review of the national forest system in many years. The purpose of the hearings was to lay the groundwork for comprehensive legislation in the next Congress that would chart a new direction for the management of national forests. While often disagreeing on solutions, Democrats and Republicans alike now concur that significant changes must be made in the management of our public lands.


After the Revolutionary War, Virginia and other newly created states that owned western territories ceded them to the federal government. President Jefferson, in turn, acquired additional large land masses in negotiations with France that led to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. A half century later, President Polk acquired substantial holdings in the Southwest as a result of the 1848 treaty that followed the Mexican-American War. Throughout the 19th century, the federal government sought to dispose of these lands as rapidly as possible. In fact, the federal government eventually would dispose of more than a billion acres of land, about half the nation’s current land area, most of it during the 19th century. Private homesteaders and the states shared equally in this bounty.

The nation’s land-disposal policy would largely come to an end in the early 20th century. By that time, most of America’s best lands had been transferred into the hands of private owners or state governments. What often remained were lands that suffered from inadequate rainfall, steep, rocky slopes, or remote locations that made access difficult and expensive. In short, by the turn of the century, the federal government was left mostly with lands that no one else wanted.

Beyond these ecological considerations, there was an ideological shift in American political life that increasingly led the nation to view the environment less as a matter for individual private decision making and more as a matter of collective public choice. This shift found expression in what became known as the Progressive movement, which dominated the nation’s political landscape during the first two decades of the 20th century.

The intellectual centerpiece of the movement involved a call for the scientifically based management of the economy and environment. The prevailing belief among public officials and citizens alike was that professional experts using scientific skills and knowledge would light the way in shaping management decisions.

Creation of such a rational approach to policy, in the minds of the movement’s advocates, required a vigorous and vigilant federal government that would promote the development of a technical and managerial elite through the creation of specialized regulatory agencies. As a result, during the Progressive era, Congress enacted laws to establish, for example, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Reserve System, and the Federal Trade Commission.

The Progressive movement had a particularly large impact on land and resource management. The Bureau of Reclamation was created in 1902, the first wildlife refuge was established in 1903 in Florida, the Forest Service was launched in 1905, and the National Park Service was founded in 1916.

Moreover, the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, passed in the twilight of the Progressive era, officially ended the direct sale by the government of oil, gas, coal, and other energy sources found on public lands. This law required instead that these valuable resources be leased to private interests under tight federal controls.

The end of the era of federal land disposal came in 1934 with passage of the Taylor Grazing Act. This law denied ranchers open access to public lands for the grazing of their cattle and sheep. Henceforth, the federal government would assign individual allotments to ranchers and restrict the number of cattle and sheep permitted to graze on them. Such a strategy, government officials believed, would help protect the fragile resources of western public lands.

Today, about 25 percent of the land in the United States remains in federal ownership. State and local governments own another 8 percent of the nation’s land base. Furthermore, in many western states, an even larger portion of the land base is in federal hands. In Nevada, for example, the federal government owns more than 75 percent of the land; in Utah and Idaho, more than 60 percent; in Oregon, more than 50 percent; and in California, 45 percent. Because of these extensive land holdings, the federal government plays a much greater role in shaping the landscape of the West than that of any other region of the country.

Though abundant, federal lands, for the most part, have low commercial value. For example, it takes on average about 15 acres of BLM land to support the grazing of one cow; on good private land in the East, this would require an acre or less. In 1998, grazing on public lands yielded the government the small sum of $1.35 per month for each cow—in part, because the government charges ranchers less than the prevailing market value for each allotment and in part because the public lands on which the cows graze is less productive and thus provides less forage.

The bottom line is that while federal rangelands cover more than 10 percent of the total area of the United States, grazing, which represents the main commercial surface use of this land, generated less than $30 million in federal revenue in 1996.

The source of most public revenue on the federal lands is the leasing of energy minerals, mainly oil, gas, and coal. In terms of oil reserves, the federal government owns the resource-rich U.S. outer continental shelf, which sits beyond the nation’s coastal shoreline. Including the outer continental shelf, federal oil and gas leases supplied 20 percent of the total U.S. domestic oil production and 33 percent of the natural-gas production in 1994. Coal produced from federal leases supplied 28 percent of total U.S. production.

In 1994, in total, the outer continental shelf yielded mineral-leasing revenues of nearly $3 billion, while federal on-shore lands yielded about $1 billion. By law, about 50 percent of the on-shore mineral leasing revenues are transferred directly to the states in which the leases are located; the other 50 percent of the revenues go to the federal government.


Though the federal domain contains a diversity of land types and resources, including national parks and monuments, national forest lands, wildlife refuges, coal deposits, and oil and gas reserves, the term public lands usually refers only to lands and minerals managed by the BLM and the Forest Service. These lands have traditionally been managed according to the principle of multiple use—in contrast to the more restrictive mandates for wildlife refuges and national parks.1

More recently, there has also been a growing tendency to zone public lands for specific purposes. The Wilderness Act of 1964, for instance, represented a basic departure from previous public-lands legislation in that lands were permanently set aside by law for a well-defined preservation purpose.2 Yet these lands, which now total more than 100 million acres, were kept within the jurisdiction of the administering agencies, including the Forest Service and the BLM.

Subsequently, many new land-use designations have been introduced. Among them are areas of critical environmental concern, conservation areas, and riparian zones, each imposing a particular set of restrictions on potential future uses within that zone.

In the Pacific Northwest, the protection plan for the spotted owl, designated a threatened species in 1990 under the Endangered Species Act, continued this trend by setting aside 7.5 million acres for the preservation of the owl and other endangered species.


Following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, public-lands issues receded from public view for two decades. In fact, no legislation of major significance was enacted from 1940 to 1960. By the 1960s, however, there were signs of change, including the formal setting aside of lands in wilderness, establishment of wild and scenic rivers, and creation of other designations for public lands.

Then, in the 1970s, prompted by increasing public concern for the environment, the federal government enacted more significant legislation affecting public lands than in any other decade in American history.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed on New Years Day 1970, represented the first wedge in a host of laws designed to overcome the shortcomings of the public-lands system. NEPA required federal agencies to prepare environmental- impact statements prior to taking any major actions, such as building a dam or offering a major mineral lease.

At one point in the late 1970s, the Department of the Interior’s livestock-grazing, timber-management, and coal-leasing programs were all operating under court supervision as provided for by NEPA. No major changes in land management were permitted until a programmatic environmental-impact statement had detailed and assessed the possible consequences.

The Forest and Rangelands Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974 and the National Forest Management Act of 1976 set a new statutory foundation for national forest management. In particular, these acts required the Forest Service to devote major new resources to economic and land-use planning. And the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which gave the BLM its first formal legislative charter governing its activities, also mandated systematic reviews of BLM lands for possible wilderness designation.

Then, two years later, Congress passed the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Amendments, which provided the first detailed legislative prescription for the planning and management of the rich federal oil and gas resources lying off U.S. coasts. Before then, these resources were managed under vague statutes that left key decisions in the hands of the executive branch.

All in all, the environmental legislation of the 1970s reaffirmed the scientific management philosophy that had guided the Progressive movement more than a half century before. As Margaret Shannon of the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources writes, the overarching strategy that drove this flurry of legislation remained one of "centralized administration by highly trained experts." Efficient and productive use of the resources found on public lands would be their guiding principles.

Specifically, agency administrators again were instructed that they should act to maximize the benefits realized from the lands by all the people of the United States. This management strategy echoed the 1905 sentiments of the founder of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, who insisted that the national forests should be managed to serve "the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run."


Environmental and public lands policies in the 1970s did not simply replicate the trends of the Progressive era. As a result of the laws and regulations passed during the 1970s, the decision-making process would be opened to a wider range of groups. The increased access enjoyed by grassroots organizations, combined with the growing strength of national environmental groups, challenged the historic dominance of livestock, mining, timber, and other economic interests. These groups also often served as a counterpart to the nation’s scientific and managerial elite.

Today, environmental impacts do weigh more heavily in management calculations than in years past, yet the goal of scientific management of public lands remains as elusive as ever. Indeed, the legislation of the 1970s created so many requirements and complications that managers have typically proven incapable of establishing any clear direction. This is true partly because of the absence of a well-defined and unified management vision. As a consequence, public lands have remained under the strong influence of politics, which is what reform advocates both at the turn of the century and in the 1970s had hoped to avoid.

Buffeted by shifting political winds, agency morale has tumbled over the past two decades. Meanwhile, the operative words used to describe public-lands management have become gridlock and polarization, and the federal management philosophy can best be characterized by the credo "do nothing new."

Environmental groups initially saw considerable advantage in a regime that offered numerous procedural impediments that could be used to block all manner of environmentally destructive projects. Yet, in recent years environmentalists increasingly have acknowledged the need to be more active in helping to shape new policies. Consider, for instance, that doing nothing may leave riparian areas exposed to continued livestock grazing that will deteriorate stream banks, strip vegetative cover, and destroy fish habitat.

On the other hand, in some instances, active—though poorly guided—federal management has also created problems. For example, many forests in the West are densely packed with dead brush and immature trees after years of fire suppression, a practice whose benefits remain questionable. These conditions leave forests exposed to disease and at risk of major, even catastrophic, fires. In 1996, the fires that spread across the West—in California, Colorado, and New Mexico—brought some of these problems home to roost.

In reworking the statutory foundations for the public-lands system in the 1970s, it was taken for granted that scientific management would provide the guiding vision management agencies so desperately needed. Twenty years later, however, it is now clear that this vision has not materialized, and that it is time to question the very goal of scientific management of public lands.


According to the mind set of the Progressive era, dedicated professionals, even of opposing politics and values, would inevitably arrive at the same basic technical conclusions, given time and access to the pertinent scientific data. In practice, however, scientific investigations involving key land-management issues have more often yielded protracted disagreement.

For years, in fact, rangeland scientists have failed to agree on whether the condition of public rangelands has really been improving or declining over time. Despite the confident belief that solid science would chart a clear management path, this has not proven to be the case. Part of the problem arises from our lack of a clear scientific grasp of how ecological processes unfold or how they are interconnected. In short, science has not evolved to the point that it can provide decisive evidence proving the validity of one management approach over another.

Consider the example of the national forests in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. In his foreword to a recent study of the forests’ history, William Cronon, a leading environmental historian, describes how, early in the 20th century, the Forest Service began a "decades-long process of careful, scientifically informed management designed to maximize the yield of the forest in ecologically sustainable ways that would improve the forest’s productivity and health."3

The outcome of this initiative was hardly what managers expected. In fact, in the Blue Mountains, the application of scientific management yielded an ecological disaster marked by the loss of the Ponderosa pine forests that had once characterized the region. "By the 1990s," Cronon writes, "even the Forest Service was acknowledging that its own policies had helped to produce catastrophic results for the very forests they were intended to protect."

As Nancy Langston, an historian at the University of Wisconsin, writes, it was "a tragedy in which decent people...proud of their new scientific discipline" of forestry nevertheless overestimated the depth of their knowledge and in the end "destroyed what they cared for most."

The case of the Blue Mountains is not an isolated one. Indeed, in numerous federal forests and rangelands, so-called scientific management has yielded unwelcome outcomes. For instance, the BLM adopted "rest-rotation" grazing systems in the 1970s, some of which worked but many of which did not. The fact is, the overall condition of the nation’s rangeland is about the same as it was two decades ago. And it was the practice of scientific forestry throughout the Rocky Mountains that led to timber sales so uneconomical that the sale revenues could not even cover the administrative costs.

The failure of scientific management actually reflects more than just a weakness in available science. Indeed, if the government’s action posed a threat to the livelihood of a powerful individual or group, the affected party could always appeal to congressional representatives. Decisive agency management in the highly politicized circumstances that have surrounded decisions over public lands is difficult at best.

All observers have to do is examine the paralyzing debate over the spotted owl in the forests of the Northwest, grazing fees on federal rangelands, or appropriate procedures for leasing federal coal resources, to realize that the fixes Congress imposed on the nation’s public-lands system during the 1970s are not working.


The dilemma is that if public-lands management cannot be based on science, there may be no way to leave politics out. The upshot is that all—or at least most—decisions affecting management of federal lands are heavily value laden and cannot be resolved by science. However, to view management as a fundamentally political process calls into question the overriding strategy of the Progressive era and subsequently of the 1970s. More important, to abandon scientific management is also likely to mean major changes in the institutional arrangements for managing public lands.

The idea that land management is primarily a scientific task has had a profound impact on the design of the public-lands system. For decades, for example, the perception persisted that the federal government was in the position to attract the best scientists. The government believed that it could use its access to superior professional skills, as well as the better data it had, to coordinate diverse activities across the vast expanse of the nation’s public lands.

Simply put, the federal government believed that the best strategies for managing the nation’s public lands would originate in the minds and research of federal experts. Equally important, many within government, along with their allies in the research community, believed that scientific methods would reveal the one best way to manage the lands.

The fading of the vision that land management could be determined by science—and in most cases, government-funded science—has led to new directions in land management, and it has created pressures for more decentralized management of federal lands. Decentralization allows for a greater pluralism in terms of land-management decisions, which can reflect the diversity of values held among Americans of many different backgrounds.

As was the case in the past, when the federal government imposed a single, one-size-fits-all value system in managing its lands, centralization requires some people to bow to the values of others. And that can do much to destroy a region’s integrity and sense of place and community.

Daniel Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula, Montana, and author of several books, maintains 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."4 In other words, the West will not thrive until it has much greater freedom to manage its lands in the way it deems most appropriate and is much less subject to second guessing by politicians back in Washington.

Indeed, efforts to shape stronger communities in the West may well depend on letting local people apply local values in using the land. Land historically has been considered the most local of government responsibilities. In a real sense, land use is about a person’s home, the immediate neighborhood surrounding it, the roads that lead to and from it, and places to hunt, fish, and play.

The regulation of private land traditionally has been a municipal, not a federal or state, concern. In fact, only recently have state governments dared to intrude in this domain. Thus, efforts to give more decision-making power to local authorities, even when the focus of concern is federal lands, is not a radical departure from long-standing principles; instead, it is based on a desire to extend to the West the historic role that local entities have played in land-use decisions ever since the nation was founded more than two centuries ago.


Although many analysts agree that management of public lands should be decentralized, proposals to actually carry this out have met with failure. The main reason is that concrete proposals tend to create identifiable winners and losers. As a consequence, even those who propose decentralization as a matter of principle often become less enthusiastic once they realize that the benefits they enjoy under the current regime could be placed at risk as a result of the new administrative framework.

The Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s and early 1980s, through which several western state legislatures sought to transfer federal lands to the states, is a case in point. During the rebellion, many rural westerners insisted that the federal government was overbearing and excessively centralized in its management of public forests and rangelands. Yet, when the time came to follow up, most western members of Congress refused to push for legislation that would have transferred federal lands to the states. These representatives feared, in part, that taking such action might lead to a sizeable decrease in the amount of federal funds being spent to manage federal lands within their districts.

More recently, western ranchers likewise offered lukewarm support for the legislative proposals proffered by congressional Republicans in 1995 that would have transferred BLM lands to state governments. Because grazing fees on state-owned lands are typically two to three times higher than those on federal lands, some ranchers feared that the increased level of state and local autonomy might cost them money. These ranchers also feared that they might lose some of the access rights to lands currently under their use if management responsibilities shifted from the federal to state governments. Ranchers currently operate under tenure arrangements that have evolved over the years through informal interaction with federal officials, and they worried that state officials might not respect these de facto rights.

Environmentalists also have favored decentralization in principle but opposed it in practice in many instances. The environmental movement of the 1960s started off as a set of grassroots protests against dams, highways, power plants, and other projects supported by central authorities at federal and state levels. Those involved in the environmental movement often voiced their objection to centralized management in their efforts to fight these and other projects, which they viewed as harmful to the environment. Yet in practice, the environmental movement often relies on federal power to accomplish its aims. For instance, the creation of large national parks and wildlife refuges in Alaska, and their subsequent management, has often overridden the views of local Alaskans, who would prefer to see the land put to other—perhaps less preservationist—uses.

Despite uncertainty inherent in change of any kind, more people are concluding that the current problems plaguing the public-lands system are so severe that the potential benefits of change outweigh the risks from a new management paradigm. Though I can only speculate on what form a new land-management strategy ultimately might take, it may well embrace such steps as:

n Granting more power to the regional and local field offices of existing federal management agencies. In 1960, in his classic book on public administration, The Forest Ranger, political scientist Herbert Kaufmann described a Forest Service that prided itself on its decentralized management. Forest Service employees were fewer in number then, yet they seemed to be able to accomplish more. To be sure, the Forest Service made great efforts to ensure that a common Forest Service ethos was understood and accepted by all its personnel. Then, with the Forest Service having an agencywide mission, the agency gave its field offices the authority to pursue that mission in a way that made sense in terms of the special local challenges each faced.

Today, though we cannot hope to return to the simpler times of the Forest Service’s early years, we can return a greater level of empowerment to the agency’s field personnel. Such empowerment would allow field personnel to set timber harvests, decide where different forms of recreation should be allowed, work out species-protection plans, and apply planning approaches best suited to local circumstances.

With such empowerment comes increasing attention to principles and practices made in close consultation with affected communities rather than at the beck and call of Washington. Not only would such a system be more effective at addressing problems specific to various regions, it would also prove less costly. Indeed, agency budgets and personnel rolls have expanded greatly since the 1970s. Through this unchecked growth, the Forest Service has attempted to keep up with demands for more detailed project proposals and complex land-use plans and to comply with complicated procedures. If we hope to allow local managers to manage, we must strip away much of this existing superstructure of central supervision and control.

n Creating public lands corporations. There is the risk of conflict of interest in granting greater autonomy to local offices when their funding comes from the federal government. In such circumstances, the local agency office might be motivated to maximize the amount of federal funds funneled into the area in order to increase local benefits. If local autonomy becomes synonymous with spending federal dollars without being fully answerable in terms of how those dollars are spent, federal officials and Congress likely will regard such reforms as unacceptable.

In 1988, with this problem in mind, Randal O’Toole, a leading analyst of Forest Service planning, proposed that individual national forests be established as public corporations. According to O’Toole’s proposal, these corporations would have the authority to set their own grazing and recreation fees, offer timber harvests for sale, and employ other revenue-raising devices. Moreover, the revenues collected would remain at the local level. In turn, individual forest corporations would be required to use these revenues to cover their management costs.

This arrangement would greatly curtail, if not end, the current practice of selling timber rights at rates that often fail even to cover management agencies’ administrative costs. These sales often have occurred in roadless, remote areas where the environmental damages have been considerable.

Economically, O’Toole’s arrangement would provide a strong incentive for corporations to fully realize the revenue potential of the lands under their purview. Furthermore, if funding had to be raised from users, there would be a closer accounting of benefits and costs than results from the current system involving expenditure of federal money. Unfortunately, many local people come to regard federal money as being "free."

n Devolving power to state and local governments. In 1970, the Public Land Law Review Commission chartered by Congress recommended that recreation areas on public lands be assigned to one of two categories: (1) "unique areas of national significance that exist on the public lands," and (2) "public land areas of less than national significance [that are] necessary to satisfy state or local intensive recreation needs." While the commission maintained that the former lands should remain under federal management, it suggested that the latter be leased or transferred to the appropriate level of government, which in many cases could be the state or locality.

Since the time of the commission’s recommendation, outdoor recreation has become more prevalent. As a consequence, the approach proposed by the commission 25 years ago could now be applied more widely. Indeed, the large areas of public land where recreation is now the basic use could be turned over to state and local management, which would be consistent with traditional American federalist principles.

While states and localities would increase management roles for most recreational areas, the federal government would continue to own and manage such unique national landmarks and special areas as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Yellowstone in Wyoming, and the Gettysburg Civil War battle site in Pennsylvania.

This devolution of management responsibility for public lands to state and local governments could be accomplished in a variety of ways. The federal government might maintain ownership but contract with state or local governments to manage the lands. The lands might be leased to state and local governments with few restrictions. Or ownership of these lands could be transferred outright to states and localities.

Western states own about 140 million acres of trust lands whose net revenues are dedicated to schools and other institutions in the state. The management record on these state-owned lands has been the focus of several recent studies, which suggest that state lands have often been managed as effectively or better than federal lands.5

State or local ownership of federal lands poses several clear benefits. For one thing, state administrators would be freer to experiment with new policies and to reorganize the structures of land management. Such reorganization has proven difficult, if not impossible, under federal control because complex and conflicting laws yield gridlock and polarization within the federal system.


The existing public-lands system was founded in the early 20th century with a vision of scientific management that has now failed. It is therefore time for a fundamental change. In concrete terms, that could mean the end of some existing public-lands agencies and a sharp curtailment of the current federal management role. That is a profoundly unsettling possibility for many people.

Agencies respond in part by promising again and again to repair the edifice of Progressive thinking as new cracks appear. As they do, they offer the hope that the new structure will be better than before. At some point, however, it pays to tear down a failing building and erect a new one.

If such major institutional change does come to the public lands, it may well engender decentralization of land-management responsibility. As a consequence, in the 21st century, the public lands could witness a return to modes of operation that were a regular feature of American life prior to the birth of the Progressive era.

Indeed, in the 19th century the federal government played a much smaller role in American life than it does today. But for most of the 20th century, inspired in part by the theorists of Progressive ideology, events moved in the opposite direction.

The public-lands issue is only one of several policy realms in search of new governing paradigms. But change is not likely to arrive in one sudden burst of restructuring. That is not the American way. Rather, like other changes in American values and institutions, the process will most likely be incremental; the full dimensions of change may not be realized until well after the key events have occurred.

Nevertheless, over the next few years, careful observers of events on the public lands may well glimpse powerful new forces of decentralization at work that also will shape many other aspects of American society in the coming century.n


Robert H. Nelson is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, and a senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

1. Citizens also readily acknowledge that national parks constitute a significant part of America’s public lands. These parks, however, are set aside exclusively for the preservation of the nation’s natural resources and the enjoyment of the American people. As a result, national parks are not subject to the same multiple-use pressures that are exerted on lands operated by the National Forest Service or BLM.

2. The Wilderness Act set aside lands for preservation "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." New mining, timber harvesting, roads, and motorized vehicles are prohibited in wilderness areas. Unlike in National Parks, grazing and hunting are allowed.

3. William Cronon, "With the Best of Intentions," Foreword to Nancy Langston, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), p. viii.

4. Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), pp. 125, 127.

5. Jon A. Souder and Sally K. Fairfax, The State Trust Lands: A Guide to their Management and Use (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995).

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