In the endless arguments over public land, it’s healthy to seek the boggy middle ground. But it’s also worthwhile to stroll out to the edge, out where the arguments define right and wrong. For readers ready for such a stroll, Richard W. Behan has written a provocative travel guide, Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Federal Lands. Published in 2001, this book gets more timely every day, as the Bush administration finds new methods to expose public land to capitalism.

Behan, the dean emeritus of the School of Forestry at Northern Arizona University, points out that one-third of the nation’s total land area, ranging from national forests to military bases, is federal land held as “common property.” But the land has been attacked by corporations, which began by taking over the Bureau of Reclamation, so the irrigation water flowed to them instead of to the small-scale farmers. Then corporations extended their influence with campaign contributions, political manipulations and marketing to stimulate “hyperconsumption” of natural resources.

Now Behan sees an unelected government of immense corporations and stockholder ideology running the federal estate. Corporations control Congress, the White House, and thus agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service. As a result, he writes, “The lands are in dismal condition — timberlands are overcut, rangelands are overgrazed, fisheries are depleted, rivers are overdammed, parks are overused, and subsidized mining ravages landscapes.” The message is not entirely one of despair; Behan pins a shred of hope on local consensus efforts that attempt to restore the public’s influence.

Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Federal Lands
by Richard W. Behan
240 pages, hardcover $30.
Island Press, 2001.