It’s time to revisit an old way to resolve public land fights

Commissions offer a way to navigate thorny policy questions and find consensus.

 

Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.

On Feb. 12, the Senate passed a huge bipartisan conservation bill. Like the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Bill, the Natural Resources Management Act, which also passed the House but still has to gain the president’s signature, accomplishes a lot for local constituencies painstakingly built up over years.

The achievements come from the bill’s scale, though, not its direction. For the most part, it simply adds more to the existing public-land system rather than examining and potentially redirecting it. This may be the 21st century’s way of legislating large for public lands, but history shows other possibilities.

Between 1879 and 1970, the federal government convened four public-land commissions to assess the current policies and recommend overhauls for congressional legislation. We may well benefit from another round of deep thinking in today’s substantially different environmental and political contexts.

A member of Clarence King’s “Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel” surveys Shoshone Canyon and Falls, Idaho Territory, from a rock, around 1868.

The first commission, which convened from 1879 to 1883, was tasked with considering the wide collection of laws meant to convert public domain into private property, after title to the land had been wangled from Indigenous people by some combination of war, treaty or fraud. But the commission ended up arguing that some of the public domain should remain permanently under public control, laying the foundation for public lands as we know them today. Concerned about duplicative and ineffective laws and worried about General Land Office corruption, Congress instructed the commission to recommend “the best methods of disposing of the public lands of the western portion of the United States to actual settlers.” Led by Western explorers-turned-bureaucrats like John Wesley Powell and Clarence King, the commission found the existing system mostly satisfactory. But occasionally it singled out large concentrations of land in individual hands as “not only unrepublican, but... essentially unjust,” reflecting the longstanding preference for small holdings for farmers. In particular, timberlands were a poor fit for private ownership, as the West’s mountainous forests made poor homesteads. So the commission advocated withdrawing timberlands from sale and keeping them under federal control. It took nearly a decade, but in 1891, Congress passed a law that allowed presidents to retain forest reserves, the beginnings of our national forest system.  

The next two commissions, the Public Lands Commission of 1903-1905 and the Committee on the Conservation and Administration of the Public Domain of 1929-1931, tackled the persistent policy questions surrounding grazing lands, reflecting two contrasting visions that continue to shape Western politics — federal regulation versus state control. The 1903-1905 commission concluded that much of the West, some 300 million acres, could only support grazing; no other economic practice made ecological or economic sense. The commissioners endorsed a system that maintained federal ownership, organized by grazing districts, with “definite and appropriate regulations,” including a grazing fee. In response, the Forest Service started charging a fee. But the rest of the public domain — neither owned by individuals nor controlled by federal agencies — remained almost wholly unregulated, yet used by Western stockgrowers.

The Depression-era commission made more drastic suggestions, ultimately recommending that the vast public domain, except for the subsurface mineral rights, be given to the states. Such a gift, argued Sen. William Borah, R-Idaho, was akin to giving those states “an orange with the juice sucked out of it.” The states saw the largely degraded rangeland as a huge burden to administer and rehabilitate. Even the commission was divided by such a radical recommendation. The commission’s division and the states’ lackluster response might be interpreted as a failure. Yet the polarizing recommendation finally prompted Congress to act and pass the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act.

The Oregon Canyon Wilderness Study Area viewed from Jackson Summit, Malheur County. Wilderness study areas were allocated under Section 603 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

The most recent commission, the Public Land Law Review Commission of 1964-1970, was the most thorough to date and set the legislative stage for significant reform. Its final report, One-Third of a Nation, was full of recommendations to rein in executive power. As with the previous commissions, many recommendations withered in the pages, including a reorientation that would have prioritized economic returns from public lands and replaced multiple-use management with a dominant-use framework. Nevertheless, Congress responded with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976), which significantly reshaped Bureau of Land Management policy. Among other things, FLPMA established multiple-use management policy guidelines, mandated that advisory councils include more than commercial interests, struck nearly 2,000 old statutes from the law books and brought the Wilderness Act’s provisions to BLM-managed landscapes. It did not amount to as radical a revision as some legislators had hoped, but coming out of the commission’s work, FLPMA clarified a number of longstanding issues and reoriented sizable portions of BLM’s portfolio.

In recent years, policy scholars Martin Nie and James Skillen have both called for new public-lands commissions. The idea merits consideration: A serious commission might force a real reckoning with the existing policy framework. After all, when the last commission concluded its work, the National Environmental Policy Act was a few months old and the Endangered Species Act still three years away; conservation biology and restoration ecology were not distinct fields; and climate change was not a policy concern. Today, another looming question concerns how to abide by tribal nations’ legal claims on public lands.

Big bills like the Natural Resources Management Act advance conservation, but they also creep along well-worn legislative trails. Sometimes, rangers must close a trail on public lands to prevent overuse. It may be that our existing public-land policies need to be assessed for an analogous overuse. Rather than continuing tired political debates or trudging along past the same old scenery, perhaps we should acknowledge that conditions on the ground in 2019 merit a fresh set of eyes.

Bureau of Land Management forest lands in Oregon and Washington are administered under the Oregon and California Railroad Lands Act of 1937 and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, professor and writer. He lives in Pullman, Washington. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Note: This article has been updated.

High Country News Classifieds
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....