Public Lands Make Up a Third of the U.S. and They're Wildly Popular

Professor John Leshy explains how, in a country that glorifies private property, the public came to own so much of the landscape.

Rhett A. Butler Mongabay

The Lolo National Forest, a 2-million-acre swath of public land, spans the western edge of Montana. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by Mongabay and is repub­lished here under a Cre­ative Com­mons license.

It might be hard to believe in the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate, but pub­lic lands were a uni­fy­ing issue for Amer­i­cans until quite recent­ly. Most Amer­i­cans have sup­port­ed the idea of the gov­ern­ment own­ing and man­ag­ing large areas of land for pub­lic use, and that bipar­ti­san con­sen­sus has cul­mi­nat­ed in the cre­ation of vast net­work of nation­al parks, forests and mon­u­ments which are col­lec­tive­ly vis­it­ed by tens of mil­lions of peo­ple annually.

Does that mean pub­lic lands could serve as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bridge gaps in a polar­ized Amer­i­ca? John Leshy, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of law at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Hast­ings and gen­er­al coun­sel at the U.S. Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or dur­ing the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, thinks it’s possible.

Leshy, who began his career lit­i­gat­ing civ­il rights cas­es for the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice, has spent much of the past five decades work­ing on pub­lic lands issues. He’s co-authored the stan­dard case­book on fed­er­al pub­lic lands and resources, served as an admin­is­tra­tor and advi­sor on pub­lic lands issues for gov­ern­ments and NGOs, writ­ten books on the Min­ing Law of 1872 and the Ari­zona Con­sti­tu­tion, and penned influ­en­tial thought pieces, includ­ing a recent com­men­tary in the New York Times on the Grand Stair­case-Escalante Nation­al Mon­u­ment. In recog­ni­tion of these achieve­ments, in 2013 Leshy received the Defend­ers of Wildlife Lega­cy Award for life­time con­tri­bu­tions to wildlife con­ser­va­tion. Leshy is now work­ing on Our Com­mon Ground: A His­to­ry of America’s Pub­lic Lands”, a forth­com­ing title from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Dur­ing a Sep­tem­ber 2020 inter­view with Mongabay, Leshy spoke about how pub­lic lands could help a divid­ed Amer­i­ca find com­mon ground and heal as it works to address the daunt­ing new chal­lenges posed by cli­mate change.

An Inter­view with John Leshy

In 1972 I caught anoth­er lucky break, land­ing a job with the two-year-old Nat­ur­al Resources Defense Coun­cil (NRDC), an envi­ron­men­tal advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion, to help launch its west­ern office in Cal­i­for­nia. My five years there gave me a pro­fes­sion­al intro­duc­tion to pub­lic lands issues. I became cap­ti­vat­ed by them. Over the ensu­ing years I’ve had the good for­tune to advo­cate, teach, write and oth­er­wise engage on pub­lic lands mat­ters in many dif­fer­ent set­tings, includ­ing near­ly twelve years in the Inte­ri­or Depart­ment and a stint on a con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tee staff.

His­tor­i­cal­ly U.S. pub­lic lands were a uni­fy­ing issue, but today it seems polit­i­cal­ly divi­sive. What changed?

A great ques­tion. It is an under-appre­ci­at­ed fact that, as you point out, pub­lic lands have his­tor­i­cal­ly tend­ed to uni­fy the nation.

Yet many his­to­ries have sound­ed the oppo­site theme — that pub­lic lands were the prod­uct of a land grab by the nation­al gov­ern­ment, brought about after clash­es that usu­al­ly pit­ted it against states and local­i­ties, or one region or one polit­i­cal par­ty against another.

Of course, con­flict has not been entire­ly absent from pub­lic lands his­to­ry. For one thing, there has always been a lib­er­tar­i­an streak in Amer­i­can cul­ture. Some folks dis­like just about every­thing the gov­ern­ment, espe­cial­ly the nation­al gov­ern­ment, does.

But over­all, the his­tor­i­cal record is quite clear. The deci­sions pro­duc­ing the pub­lic lands we see today were, almost with­out excep­tion, sup­port­ed by most of the peo­ple, includ­ing the peo­ple in the locales most direct­ly affect­ed. These deci­sions were also almost always bipar­ti­san and have remained endur­ing­ly popular.

It adds up to an impor­tant, if lit­tle-known, polit­i­cal suc­cess sto­ry: how — in a coun­try whose cul­ture cel­e­brates pri­vate prop­er­ty and dis­trusts gov­ern­ment (and espe­cial­ly the nation­al gov­ern­ment) — that gov­ern­ment came, with wide pub­lic sup­port, to own near­ly one-third of the nation’s real estate and to man­age it most­ly to serve broad pub­lic val­ues like recre­ation, inspi­ra­tion, edu­ca­tion, sci­ence, and bio­di­ver­si­ty conservation.

When I have told peo­ple this about the pub­lic lands (as I’ve had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do many times over the course of my career), their reac­tion is usu­al­ly some­thing like, I had no idea, how did that come about?”

Even­tu­al­ly I decid­ed to try my hand at writ­ing a read­able his­to­ry that would answer that ques­tion for a gen­er­al audi­ence. It seemed to me the sto­ry of how our polit­i­cal process pro­duced this suc­cess is par­tic­u­lar­ly worth know­ing, and cel­e­brat­ing, in this era of wide­spread cyn­i­cism about gov­ern­ment and politics.

The idea took on more urgency when a rag­tag armed group took over a nation­al wildlife refuge in Ore­gon in late 2015, spout­ing pre­pos­ter­ous claims that all the U.S. pub­lic lands are an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al affront to our polit­i­cal tra­di­tions, and that these par­tic­u­lar pub­lic lands had been wrong­ful­ly seized by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment (they hadn’t). The episode and its cov­er­age in the media revealed the depth and breadth of igno­rance about how America’s pub­lic lands orig­i­nat­ed and how they came to be man­aged as they are today.

Of course, much has been writ­ten about the his­to­ry of par­tic­u­lar sub­di­vi­sions of pub­lic lands like nation­al parks and nation­al forests, and about impor­tant char­ac­ters in the sto­ry like John Muir and Theodore Roo­sevelt. But it seemed to me impor­tant to step back and take a broad­er look at the pub­lic lands as a whole and show how this Amer­i­can insti­tu­tion has evolved over the his­to­ry of the nation.

My book, called Our Com­mon Ground, will be pub­lished in anoth­er year or so by Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press. I hope it will help advance pub­lic under­stand­ing of this com­plex sub­ject. One thing that makes it com­plex is that pub­lic lands are admin­is­tered by four dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment agen­cies. The least known, the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment (BLM), looks after the most land, about 256 mil­lion acres. The oth­er three are the U.S. For­est Ser­vice (193 mil­lion acres), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice (91 mil­lion), and the best known, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice (78 mil­lion). Although con­cen­trat­ed in the West, they are found through­out the nation — for exam­ple, pub­lic lands com­prise more than 5% of the area of a dozen non-west­ern states.

Each year, these lands offer many mil­lions of peo­ple life-chang­ing encoun­ters with the nation’s nat­ur­al and cul­tur­al her­itage. Pub­lic lands-relat­ed tourism is the eco­nom­ic anchor of many com­mu­ni­ties. The lands car­ry many con­fus­ing labels — parks, forests, wildlife refuges, mon­u­ments, recre­ation areas, con­ser­va­tion areas, wilder­ness, pre­serves, scenic areas, and on and on. Behind each label is a polit­i­cal sto­ry that I try to fit into the larg­er picture.

I agree with your obser­va­tion that today pub­lic lands seem polit­i­cal­ly divi­sive, but I believe this is more appear­ance than real­i­ty. Opin­ion polls over the last sev­er­al years con­sis­tent­ly con­firm that the vast major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans still regard the pub­lic lands as a huge nation­al asset, a price­less lega­cy to hand down to suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions. Not only that, but they want to hold and pro­tect even more. In response, Con­gress has found ways to con­tin­ue to enact leg­is­la­tion to do that despite grow­ing polar­iza­tion in the polit­i­cal cli­mate in general.

It may seem sur­pris­ing, but Don­ald Trump grasped that polit­i­cal truth much faster than his rivals for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion in 2016. In Feb­ru­ary of that year, he told Field and Stream mag­a­zine that the Unit­ed States should keep and be great stew­ards” of its mag­nif­i­cent” pub­lic lands. His cel­e­bra­tion of pub­lic lands helped him car­ry five inter­moun­tain west­ern states and Alas­ka, most by very sub­stan­tial mar­gins, in the 2016 election.

Trump’s words were cam­ou­flage because, once in office, his admin­is­tra­tion has worked relent­less­ly to trans­fer as much con­trol over pub­lic lands as pos­si­ble to fos­sil fuel and oth­er indus­tri­al enter­pris­es. In car­ry­ing out that agen­da, it has done more than any since the Civ­il War to reverse the long-term trend toward hold­ing and pro­tect­ing more pub­lic lands. Its most promi­nent step in that direc­tion — the president’s dras­tic shrink­ing of the Grand Stair­case-Escalante and Bears Ears Nation­al Mon­u­ments in south­ern Utah, strip­ping legal pro­tec­tions from more than one mil­lion acres — was only one of many such actions. I’ve explained this and done a fuller analy­sis of Trump and his impact on pub­lic lands in recent arti­cles that can be found here and at The Amer­i­can Schol­ar.

How can the con­stituen­cy around pub­lic lands be restored? And along those lines, what would your strat­e­gy be to build a broad­er coali­tion of sup­port so that every­one feels like the country’s pub­lic lands are theirs, whether they’re from the city or rur­al areas, or iden­ti­fy as peo­ple of color?

The con­stituen­cy is still there, but much more needs to be done to mobi­lize and expand it. The first order of busi­ness is for that con­stituen­cy to work to remove Trump and those in Con­gress who are abet­ting his assault on the pub­lic lands from pow­er. The Novem­ber elec­tion will deter­mine whether U.S. pol­i­cy will revert to its long­stand­ing tra­jec­to­ry of safe­guard­ing more and more pub­lic lands, or whether Trump will be free to con­tin­ue on the con­trary course he has charted.

Yet, even though it is a poten­tial inflec­tion point in the nation’s pub­lic land pol­i­cy, the 2020 elec­tion is not like­ly to be a pop­u­lar ref­er­en­dum on the Trump pub­lic lands agen­da. Although most Amer­i­cans voice strong sup­port for pro­tect­ing pub­lic lands, the fate of these lands is rarely a deci­sive issue for most vot­ers, even in states with large amounts of them. That is prob­a­bly even more the case now, giv­en vot­er con­cerns about the pan­dem­ic, the econ­o­my and a host of oth­er issues. That means, sad to say, that a Trump re-elec­tion could cement in place pub­lic land poli­cies most Amer­i­cans hearti­ly dislike.

Regard­less of the elec­tion out­come, the coali­tion sup­port­ing pub­lic lands needs to be broad­ened and deep­ened. An impor­tant way to do that is to increase engage­ment in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. In the his­to­ry of efforts to pro­tect pub­lic lands, peo­ple of col­or, along with women, were not promi­nent, hav­ing been exclud­ed from the polit­i­cal sys­tem at the time when many impor­tant pub­lic lands deci­sions were made. But they were not unknown. African-Amer­i­can Buf­fa­lo Sol­diers” helped pro­tect some ear­ly nation­al parks, and women played an impor­tant role in the cam­paign to pre­serve cul­tur­al resources and wildlife on pub­lic lands ear­ly in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. In recent years, some long-over­due steps have been tak­en to use pub­lic lands to edu­cate peo­ple about impor­tant episodes in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Exam­ples include pre­serv­ing sites along the Under­ground Rail­road help­ing slaves escape to free­dom, and camps con­fin­ing Japan­ese-Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II.

The his­to­ry of Native Amer­i­cans and pub­lic lands is more com­pli­cat­ed. A salu­tary devel­op­ment in recent years is greater engage­ment by Native Amer­i­cans in pub­lic lands issues, espe­cial­ly regard­ing places where they have deep cul­tur­al con­nec­tions. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma gave such efforts a promi­nent boost by estab­lish­ing the Bears Ears Nation­al Mon­u­ment on near­ly a mil­lion acres of pub­lic lands in south­ern Utah, after being peti­tioned to do so by a con­sor­tium of Indi­an tribes with ances­tral ties to the area.

There is a pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tion that advo­cates for pro­tect­ing pub­lic lands like John Muir were instru­men­tal in expelling Native Amer­i­cans from their home­lands so they could become pro­tect­ed pub­lic lands. The truth is, almost every­where, Native Amer­i­cans were oust­ed from these lands well before a move­ment arose to advo­cate that they pro­tect­ed in pub­lic own­er­ship. That is not to deny that con­ser­va­tion heroes like Muir and Theodore Roo­sevelt had racist views, just like most white Amer­i­cans of their era. But it was min­ing, lum­ber, live­stock and oth­er inter­ests — not con­ser­va­tion­ists — who spear­head­ed the move­ment to dis­pos­sess Indi­ans and con­fine them to reservations.

It is heart­en­ing to see more and more peo­ple from diverse com­mu­ni­ties recre­at­ing on the pub­lic lands and engag­ing in efforts to pro­tect them. But much more needs to be done, includ­ing, espe­cial­ly, among younger peo­ple. It is they who, after all, will be decid­ing pub­lic lands poli­cies in the future.

His­to­ry shows that much of the foun­da­tion for today’s pub­lic lands was laid dur­ing the hey­day of the so-called Pro­gres­sive Move­ment. It emerged in the wake of a severe eco­nom­ic reces­sion in the 1890s, fed by pub­lic dis­gust with a polit­i­cal sys­tem that seemed inef­fec­tu­al, and with an eco­nom­ic sys­tem marked by severe income inequal­i­ty and dom­i­nat­ed by pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions and plu­to­crats, not unlike what many per­ceive to be the case today. The Pro­gres­sive Move­ment was, notably, not cap­tive to either polit­i­cal par­ty. Repub­li­can Theodore Roo­sevelt was one of its biggest cham­pi­ons. This leaves room to believe that Repub­li­cans might some­day once again enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly embrace the cause of pro­tect­ing pub­lic lands. After all, Pres­i­dent Nixon called the pub­lic lands the birthright of every Amer­i­can” in his first State of the Union address. Even lib­er­tar­i­an icon Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter even­tu­al­ly came to sup­port mea­sures to add pro­tec­tions to pub­lic lands.

Through­out his­to­ry, the move­ment to pro­tect pub­lic lands has bridged cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal divides like the ones that now sep­a­rate large seg­ments of rur­al and urban Amer­i­ca and coastal and inte­ri­or regions. The grow­ing engage­ment of Indi­an tribes is a hope­ful sign that pub­lic lands can still be a cat­a­lyst for bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er. Per­haps it is not too much to hope that, even­tu­al­ly, America’s pub­lic lands might once again fur­nish a plat­form for reju­ve­nat­ing civic engage­ment and civ­il pub­lic dis­course, and thus help to over­come the con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal climate’s tox­ic polar­iza­tion and cyn­i­cal dis­il­lu­sion­ment with estab­lished institutions.

Do you see an oppor­tu­ni­ty for pub­lic lands to be part of the post-COVID eco­nom­ic recov­ery; for exam­ple, akin to the Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps of the 1930s?

Absolute­ly. Sev­er­al dif­fer­ent kinds of jobs pro­grams could advance pub­lic lands con­ser­va­tion. For exam­ple, in many places, infra­struc­ture to accom­mo­date vis­i­tors has decayed or not kept pace with ris­ing demand. Pub­lic lands con­tain numer­ous sites for solar and wind ener­gy projects to reduce car­bon emis­sions. Adapt­ing to a chang­ing cli­mate and help­ing pro­tect bio­di­ver­si­ty against threats offer many job oppor­tu­ni­ties for such things as fight­ing inva­sive species, restor­ing wildlife habi­tat, and help­ing pro­tect wildlife migra­tion cor­ri­dors and con­nec­tiv­i­ty. Last but not least, there are lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of thou­sands of aban­doned mines on pub­lic lands, many pos­ing safe­ty haz­ards and some being sig­nif­i­cant sources of water pol­lu­tion. Many bil­lions of dol­lars could be spent on such efforts to good effect.

The CCC made some mis­takes. It built too many roads and facil­i­ties in places that now seem inap­pro­pri­ate, its work­force was racial­ly seg­re­gat­ed and exclud­ed women, and it was not always sen­si­tive to bio­di­ver­si­ty. But it also did an enor­mous amount of good. Per­haps most impor­tant, it intro­duced hun­dreds of thou­sands of young peo­ple to the inspi­ra­tional out­doors, lead­ing many to become life­long out­door recre­ation­ists and sup­port­ers of pub­lic lands.

Are there still oppor­tu­ni­ties to estab­lish new pub­lic lands in the U.S.? And if so, what are the main cri­te­ria for these? 

For sure. For one thing, there is a long his­to­ry of the U.S. gov­ern­ment buy­ing degrad­ed lands to restore them to pro­duc­tive health. Mil­lions of acres of cutover forests east of the Rock­ies were pur­chased with that in mind begin­ning more than a cen­tu­ry ago. Mil­lions more came back into U.S. own­er­ship as home­steads in the west­ern Great Plains and oth­er arid regions failed in the Dust Bowl era. Most of these lands are now nation­al forests and grass­lands man­aged by the For­est Ser­vice. Many oth­er lands have been acquired to estab­lish new wildlife refuges, long-dis­tance hik­ing trails, and for a host of oth­er purposes.

Many addi­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties exist to acquire lands to serve all these ends. One impor­tant tool to do this is land exchanges, recon­fig­ur­ing pat­terns of land own­er­ship to bet­ter serve both pub­lic and pri­vate inter­ests. For exam­ple, an impor­tant lega­cy of nine­teenth cen­tu­ry pub­lic land pol­i­cy was a check­er-board­ed pat­tern of land own­er­ship that still per­sists in parts of the coun­try. It stemmed from the prac­tice of mak­ing grants of pub­lic land to rail­roads in 640-acre alter­nat­ing squares. (For more detail on how that worked, you’ll have to read my book.). The checker­board pos­es all sorts of prob­lems for pub­lic and pri­vate own­ers, which can be (and in some places has been) elim­i­nat­ed through land exchanges.

A good many pro­tect­ed areas of pub­lic lands are dot­ted with inhold­ings, tracts of land held in pri­vate or state own­er­ship. These can pose many prob­lems — a Nation­al Park Ser­vice Direc­tor once called them worms in the apple.” Their use and devel­op­ment can increase the risk of fire and inva­sive species, frag­ment habi­tat and adverse­ly impact vis­i­tor expe­ri­ence in numer­ous ways. There are mil­lions of acres of such inhold­ings, and many of their own­ers are will­ing, indeed eager, to sell if they are fair­ly com­pen­sat­ed; the biggest chal­lenge has been find­ing the mon­ey to pur­chase them.

In 1964 Con­gress estab­lished a fund­ing mech­a­nism, the Land & Water Con­ser­va­tion Fund (LWCF), to bring more lands into pub­lic own­er­ship for recre­ation and con­ser­va­tion. Its pri­ma­ry source was rev­enue the U.S. obtained from devel­op­ing oil and gas on sub­merged pub­lic lands off­shore. Fund mon­eys are shared among the four major fed­er­al agen­cies and state and local gov­ern­ments. Over the years, the LWCF has pro­vid­ed sev­er­al bil­lion dol­lars to acquire mil­lions of acres for con­ser­va­tion and recre­ation, includ­ing inholdings.

As orig­i­nal­ly designed, the Fund had two chron­ic prob­lems. First, it was not per­ma­nent, and had to be re-autho­rized every few years. Sec­ond, Con­gress had to vote each year to move off­shore oil and gas rev­enue into the Fund through a leg­isla­tive appro­pri­a­tion, and it almost nev­er fund­ed the full amount called for by the for­mu­la Con­gress enact­ed in 1964.

In the last two years, after a long cam­paign waged by a bipar­ti­san pro-pub­lic-lands coali­tion, Con­gress has fixed both prob­lems. First, in ear­ly 2019, it made the Fund per­ma­nent, end­ing the need for peri­od­ic re-autho­riza­tion. Then, August of this year, by sub­stan­tial majori­ties in both hous­es, Con­gress approved the Great Amer­i­can Out­doors Act. Its cen­ter­piece bypass­es the annu­al appro­pri­a­tions process to sup­ply a steady stream of fund­ing for the LWCF that will like­ly be on the order of one bil­lion dol­lars per year. (Anoth­er part of it pro­vides fund­ing to help rebuild dete­ri­o­rat­ing infra­struc­ture on pub­lic lands.)

Only days before Pres­i­dent Trump unex­pect­ed­ly announced his sup­port for the Great Amer­i­can Out­doors Act, his admin­is­tra­tion had sub­mit­ted a bud­get for fis­cal year 2021 that pro­posed slash­ing LWCF fund­ing to less than $15 mil­lion (com­pared to the $495 mil­lion Con­gress appro­pri­at­ed for it in fis­cal year 2020). His star­tling (albeit wel­come) turn­about on the issue did not sig­nal a change of heart on the pub­lic lands; instead, it was a trans­par­ent attempt to boost the cam­paigns of west­ern Repub­li­can Sen­a­tors fac­ing tough re-elec­tion fights where their sup­port for pro­tect­ing pub­lic lands had been seri­ous­ly questioned.

The Trump Admin­is­tra­tion recent­ly moved to open the coastal plain of the Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on Alaska’s north slope to ener­gy devel­op­ment. What do you think the like­li­hood of this com­ing to pass and what are the broad­er impli­ca­tions for U.S. pub­lic lands?

For a half-cen­tu­ry, the petro­le­um indus­try and the state of Alas­ka has sought to open the coastal plain of the Arc­tic NWR to oil and gas drilling. The Refuge, inter­est­ing­ly, was estab­lished in the Eisen­how­er Admin­is­tra­tion, and in 1980 Con­gress for­bade drilling there with­out its approval. The state stepped up the pres­sure as dimin­ished oil pro­duc­tion from state lands on the North Slope reduced rev­enues on which the state is so depen­dent. A mea­sure open­ing the Refuge to drilling passed Con­gress in 2017 on a strict par­ty-line vote.

Inter­est­ing­ly, this was just about the only time the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion has sought the help of Con­gress in imple­ment­ing its pub­lic land agen­da. Instead, it has gen­er­al­ly been con­tent to act almost entire­ly on its own, push­ing the bound­aries of exec­u­tive author­i­ty when necessary.

While the admin­is­tra­tion is now poised to issue leas­es giv­ing oil com­pa­nies access to the area, the industry’s inter­est has waned sub­stan­tial­ly as the world moves away from fos­sil fuels to con­trol car­bon emis­sions. Even if the admin­is­tra­tion holds a lease sale, in oth­er words, it might attract only a few bidders.

If a new admin­is­tra­tion takes office next Jan­u­ary, it would have the final say on devel­op­ment. If the Trump admin­is­tra­tion man­aged to issue leas­es before it left office, the leas­es could be can­celled, although the lease­hold­ers would prob­a­bly seek to have the tax­pay­ers com­pen­sate them for what they would claim as lost prof­its had the leas­es remained in force.

If the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion wins anoth­er four years, there is every indi­ca­tion its relent­less efforts to devel­op fos­sil fuels on pub­lic lands will con­tin­ue, even as the chang­ing cli­mate shows ever more clear­ly the cost of fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion. It has, for exam­ple, stripped pro­tec­tions from some eleven mil­lion acres of pub­lic land on Alaska’s north slope in the Nation­al Petro­le­um Reserve to the west of ANWR. In an iron­ic twist, Cono­co, press­ing to expand its oper­a­tions there, recent­ly pro­posed to install chillers” to extend the life of ice roads it needs to min­i­mize dam­age to the tun­dra from oil devel­op­ment because Arc­tic warm­ing — exac­er­bat­ed by petro­le­um devel­op­ment — makes such roads less available.

As this sug­gests, the fate of the pub­lic lands is, like the fate of the plan­et, bound up with the chal­lenge of con­trol­ling car­bon emissions.

We’re two months out from the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. If there’s a change in admin­is­tra­tion, what would you see as the top pri­or­i­ties when it comes to pub­lic lands? And if there’s not a change in admin­is­tra­tion, what do you see as the best way for­ward for pub­lic lands?

If Trump is defeat­ed, the new admin­is­tra­tion will have much to do to reverse the harm this admin­is­tra­tion has done to pub­lic lands. The good news is that in many cas­es the pro­tec­tions the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion has stripped from pub­lic lands, like at the Utah nation­al mon­u­ments, can be restored with­out too much difficulty.

But undo­ing oth­er parts of the Trump lega­cy will be hard­er and take much longer. One is its under­min­ing of sci­ence and the government’s capac­i­ty to do it and be guid­ed by it. Anoth­er is its hol­low­ing out of land man­age­ment agen­cies and its sap­ping the morale of the civ­il ser­vice. Rebuild­ing basic agency capac­i­ty and cred­i­bil­i­ty will take much time, effort and resources.

The need to do this could not have come along at a worse time. The effects of a desta­bi­liz­ing glob­al cli­mate — like the grow­ing num­ber and inten­si­ty of wild­fires and droughts, grave threats to bio­di­ver­si­ty, and sea lev­el rise — pose for­mi­da­ble chal­lenges to pub­lic land man­agers. All this is hap­pen­ing at a time when recre­ation­al vis­its to pub­lic lands have gone up dramatically.

The fail­ure to take aggres­sive steps to undo the Trump lega­cy could destroy pub­lic con­fi­dence in fed­er­al man­age­ment and, with it, pub­lic sup­port for the pub­lic lands. That unhap­py result is much more like­ly if Trump is giv­en anoth­er four years in office.

While our gov­ern­ing sys­tem is famous for its inter­lock­ing sys­tem of checks and bal­ances, there is much room to doubt they will func­tion effec­tive­ly to pro­tect the pub­lic lands. Con­sid­er the Con­gress. While many Repub­li­can mem­bers have sup­port­ed pub­lic lands pro­tec­tions in the past, Trump’s hold on the GOP has made most of its dwin­dling num­ber of mod­er­ates unwill­ing to cross him. There is lit­tle rea­son to believe that would change in a sec­ond Trump term.

The judi­cial sys­tem, where mul­ti­ple chal­lenges to Trump ini­tia­tives are pend­ing, like­wise may not pro­vide much of a check, unlike in the past where pub­lic-land-pro­tec­tion advo­cates have enjoyed con­sid­er­able suc­cess. Thanks to Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell’s con­ver­sion of the U.S. Sen­ate into a judi­cial con­fir­ma­tion machine, Trump in his first term has put many young (in their 40s) and con­ser­v­a­tive (many are ded­i­cat­ed mem­bers of the right-lean­ing Fed­er­al­ist Soci­ety) judges on the fed­er­al bench. Going for­ward, the courts are almost cer­tain to be much less recep­tive to argu­ments for pro­tect­ing pub­lic lands than in the past. Giv­ing Trump anoth­er four years to fur­ther remake the courts makes that even more certain.

Although states have had some suc­cess in resist­ing efforts to weak­en pro­tec­tions for pub­lic lands with­in their bor­ders, numer­ous exam­ples show the lim­its on their abil­i­ty to stop a pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion deter­mined to make rollbacks.

And what would hap­pen to pub­lic opin­ion in a sec­ond Trump term? Would Amer­i­cans con­tin­ue to sup­port pro­tect­ing pub­lic lands as droughts inten­si­fy and large wild­fires increase in fre­quen­cy? Would they want to main­tain the strict pro­tec­tions of the Endan­gered Species Act as extinc­tions mul­ti­ply? Would they sup­port tak­ing mea­sures need­ed to pre­vent places from being loved to death?” How much would the report­ed declin­ing inter­est among younger peo­ple in out­ings in the great out­doors under­mine sup­port for pub­lic lands?

Adding all this up, a sec­ond Trump term could pro­duce a kind of death spi­ral, as the pub­lic lands dete­ri­o­rate and the agen­cies that man­age them down­size, decen­tral­ize, and hand off more respon­si­bil­i­ty to state and local gov­ern­ments and pri­vate enti­ties. Ulti­mate­ly, the dreams of sage­brush rebels, those com­mit­ted lib­er­tar­i­ans who want all or most of the pub­lic lands pri­va­tized, could be realized.

Look­ing beyond the upcom­ing elec­tion, what is your out­look for U.S. pub­lic lands mid-cen­tu­ry and beyond? And are there lessons to be learned from the Trump pres­i­den­cy that might allow future admin­is­tra­tions to be more resis­tant to polit­i­cal whims?

My out­look for mid-cen­tu­ry relates back to my answer to your ear­li­er ques­tion about oppor­tu­ni­ties for expand­ing the port­fo­lio of pub­lic lands. For one thing, threats to bio­di­ver­si­ty are mount­ing as the human foot­print expands across the Amer­i­can land­scape. A chang­ing cli­mate exac­er­bates the problem.

Forty years ago, the esteemed sci­en­tist E. O. Wil­son called the loss of bio­di­ver­si­ty from care­less mis­use” and destruc­tion of nat­ur­al habi­tats the fol­ly that our descen­dants are least like­ly to for­give.” More recent­ly, he has advo­cat­ed set­ting aside about half the earth’s sur­face as a pro­tect­ed nat­ur­al reserve. A move­ment is now under­way, dubbed 30 by 30” that calls on the world’s nations to pledge to pro­tect thir­ty per­cent of their ter­ri­to­ry (land and marine areas off­shore) by 2030.

Today’s pub­lic lands give the U.S. a good start toward reach­ing that goal. But many bio­di­ver­si­ty hot spots and impor­tant habi­tat types are not found on pub­lic lands. A more sys­tem­at­ic effort should be made to iden­ti­fy and pro­tect such places, using pub­lic lands acqui­si­tion as a tool where appropriate.

Over­all, the fed­er­al land man­age­ment agen­cies could take steps to steer LWCF dol­lars for projects that would do that, pro­vide per­ma­nent pro­tec­tion for large land­scapes, con­nect dis­parate fed­er­al land hold­ings, elim­i­nate inhold­ings, and oth­er­wise recon­fig­ure pub­lic and pri­vate land­hold­ings to bet­ter achieve this end.

Regard­ing lessons to be learned from the Trump pres­i­den­cy, the ease with which it has been able to ignore sci­ence, evade eth­i­cal and trans­paren­cy require­ments, and thwart mean­ing­ful con­gres­sion­al and pub­lic over­sight of its pub­lic lands poli­cies has exposed seri­ous weak­ness­es in the gov­ern­ing struc­ture. Con­gress can make it hard­er for future admin­is­tra­tions to do the same by, for exam­ple, enact­ing laws tough­en­ing require­ments that pub­lic land deci­sion mak­ers in the exec­u­tive branch pay close atten­tion to the teach­ings of sci­ence. It can also leg­is­late to close loop­holes, tight­en require­ments and increase penal­ties for non-com­pli­ance with eth­i­cal and trans­paren­cy laws.

The admin­is­tra­tion has at prac­ti­cal­ly every turn exploit­ed and abused the dis­cre­tion Con­gress has giv­en the agen­cies regard­ing pub­lic land man­age­ment. Con­gress can elim­i­nate or nar­row that dis­cre­tion where appro­pri­ate and take oth­er steps to head off a repeat of what many pub­lic lands pro­tec­tion advo­cates have regard­ed as an admin­is­tra­tion of their worst nightmare.

What are the most impor­tant things the aver­age per­son can do to sup­port pub­lic lands?

There are two. First, vis­it, appre­ci­ate and learn and derive plea­sure from them. Sec­ond, engage polit­i­cal­ly in deter­min­ing their future. Lib­er­tar­i­ans like to call the pub­lic lands polit­i­cal lands,” and they mean it dis­parag­ing­ly. But they are right; what hap­pens to these lands is deter­mined by our polit­i­cal sys­tem. If the Amer­i­can peo­ple stop lov­ing them, Con­gress will get rid of them, turn­ing them over to the states or the pri­vate sec­tor. In my judg­ment, that would be a grave mis­take, but Con­gress can do it.

Anoth­er thing folks can do is respect and sup­port the civ­il ser­vants who are on the front lines man­ag­ing these lands. They face many chal­lenges, and in my expe­ri­ence near­ly all of them are gen­uine­ly ded­i­cat­ed to serv­ing the pub­lic and pro­tect­ing the resources in their care.

Look­ing back on your career, what achieve­ment are you most proud of?

My work on the sev­er­al large nation­al mon­u­ments Pres­i­dent Clin­ton estab­lished dur­ing his time in office was very sat­is­fy­ing. For one thing, it helped revi­tal­ize the Antiq­ui­ties Act of 1906 as an impor­tant tool for pro­tect­ing pub­lic lands. More­over, many of these were on lands man­aged by the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment (BLM) — the first nation­al mon­u­ments ever put in its care even though it man­ages more land than any oth­er agency. I took great plea­sure in that and the relat­ed work I did help­ing my boss, Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Bruce Bab­bitt, instill the BLM with a gen­uine con­ser­va­tion mission.

Rhett A. But­ler is the founder and CEO of Mongabay. Rhett found­ed Mongabay out of his pas­sion for wildlife and wild places. He has trav­eled wide­ly in the trop­ics and enjoys pho­tog­ra­phy, hik­ing, and scuba-diving.

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