Two lesser-known reasons to celebrate our public lands

It may be the Park Service’s 100th year, but these policies have done a lot for open space.


America has spent the last year celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service. Given that the agency protects 80 million acres — 3.5 percent of the United States — this is a birthday well worth celebrating.

But two other important birthdays passed almost unnoticed: October marked the 40th anniversary of both the Federal Land Policy Management Act, or FLPMA (pronounced “flipma”), which covers the Bureau of Land Management’s holdings, and the National Forest Management Act (pronounced “nifma”), which covers our national forests. The combined acreage overseen by the two laws amounts to almost 20 percent of the U.S.

Of course, the very notion of publicly managed lands, which are mostly concentrated in the West, has its adversaries. Most spectacularly, the Bundy Clan occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon after decades of flouting federal grazing laws. Meanwhile, a more insidious threat to public ownership comes from those politicians and interest groups seeking the transfer of federal lands to the states or into private ownership. 

The Sandy and Salmon rivers descend from the forested slopes of Mount Hood in Oregon.
Bureau of Land Management Oregon.

Why have these two almost unknown laws inspired such resistance? Because each in its own way transformed the federal lands into law-abiding areas that could be managed for our collective good.

The two laws have very different histories. The National Forest Management Act emerged as a response to the clear-cutting and timber harvest controversies of the 1960s and ’70s. To this day, people differ as to whether it provided much-needed course correction for the Forest Service or instead was a solution to a “nonexistent” problem. What the law does, essentially, is require the agency to prepare management plans for every forest. It also places significant environmental constraints on the Forest Service and gives it a mandate to manage for wildlife diversity.

FLPMA was born after more study and less tumult, but it too requires the preparation of “resource management plans.” Basically, Congress asked itself the question: How should the two agencies implement their famously open-ended multiple-use mandates and balance resource use and environmental protection? The answer, lawmakers decided, is to figure out the details through planning and public involvement. 

Perhaps that is why the two laws get so little love. In celebrating the Park Service, politicians and pundits and Hollywood celebrities can quote scripture from John Muir, with references to mountain cathedrals and holy temples and “places to play in and pray in.” But laws governing national forests and BLM lands? How do you properly celebrate sustained yield calculations, timber suitability determinations, land withdrawal procedures and interdisciplinary planning?

But what these laws lack in sex appeal, they make up for in substance and implication. Right now, for example, several national forests are revising their management plans, using a “new” 2012 planning rule. It’s a potentially transformative rule and one of the Obama administration’s underappreciated achievements. The rule creates a process for plans to be more adaptive and better informed by science and meaningful public engagement.  

There’s no doubt that planning carries with it serious baggage. Plans are the platform for the politics, trade-offs and general messiness of multiple-use management. They are subject to congressional meddling and appropriations, not to mention interest group pressure and the biases of the agencies themselves.  But like it or not, planning is a legal — and necessary — requirement, so we need to get over it. 

There are big issues coming up in the forthcoming plans, and the stakes can’t get much higher. What, for example, will become of the Northwest Forest Plan and our nation’s last roadless areas? How much land will continue to be sacrificed to oil and gas development? How will sage grouse and grizzly bears and the hundreds of other less charismatic species dependent on federal lands be safeguarded? How will we plan for climate change and protect our water supply? What’s in store for our timber mills and public land ranchers and rural communities? Answers to these questions will soon be found in an environmental impact statement near you. 

These challenges aside, the 40th anniversary provides an opportunity for us to recommit to the idea and national significance of all our public lands, not just the postcard-pretty crown jewels found in the park system. Congress called for our federal lands to be managed in the national public interest, and for planning to be done in an informed and democratic fashion. It is up to us to make sure that the work reflects our values and goals for the West’s public lands.

Martin Nie is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests in the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana.  

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