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Who's in Charge?

Nearly a third of the United States is set aside as public lands. These lands, which are primarily located in the western states of Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and California, include national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, national forests, and oil and gas reserves.

Since the 1970s, the main federal agencies managing public lands—the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service—have shifted their emphasis from resource use to resource protection. Nevertheless, they continue to be the target of environmental groups as well as loggers, ranchers, and others who depend on the timber, minerals, and livestock forage found on public lands.

"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 during the 1970s are not working," says Robert Nelson at the University of Maryland.

The vision of scientific management on which our public lands system is based has failed, says Nelson, because all management decisions are value-laden and thus prone to political pressure.

How then do we eliminate the gridlock that characterizes most public lands controversies?

According to Nelson, the answer may lie in a return to more localized management of public lands; we might grant more power to regional offices of federal agencies, create public lands corporations, or devolve power to state and local governments.

Sally Fairfax and her coauthors at the University of California also see promise in community-based land management. They describe efforts that were successful a century or more ago at preserving a historical site, protecting arid lands in the West, maintaining ecological diversity on private lands, and instituting sound farming practices. "In an effort to find alternative approaches that might be more harmonious with current efforts of local groups to wrest some control over their environment," they say, "it may be time to take another look at conservation models that do not depend on federal ownership and management of public lands."

Randal O’Toole at the Thoreau Institute agrees that devolution of management authority to a regional level is probably a good thing. He does not agree, though, that devolving authority to the states is the wisest choice. O’Toole examined nearly 150 state conservation agencies and found that they were no more successful than the federal government in managing their forest lands, parks, and watersheds.

Instead, O’Toole says, we should turn federal lands into public trusts, which would charge a fair value for all marketable resources on public lands, including recreation, minerals, and timber. A share of the receipts could be used to support nonmarket stewardship values such as forest health and biodiversity.

The idea that transferring authority from federal agencies can improve public land management is false, says Louis Blumberg, assistant regional director of the Wilderness Society. "Local control over environmental management of federal lands can only dilute environmental standards and weaken the laws and regulations that protect public land," says Blumberg. He admits that federal agencies could do a better job in managing public lands but insists that they can make a successful transition from commodity production to conservation. "Federal agencies must make the decisions about the future of public lands and resources," says Blumberg. "They cannot and should not abdicate their moral and legal responsibility to properly steward our public resources."

In the end, the debate over federal land management really centers on who should be in charge. Martin Nie at the University of Minnesota, who examines the conflict that recently erupted over the designation of public lands in southern Utah, says local residents resent eastern politicians dictating how western lands should be managed. Outsiders, on the other hand, claim local residents can’t be trusted to place environmental interests over economic ones. Resolving this conflict will take more than shifting agency responsibilities.

The Editors

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