“I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own.” – Andy Warhol(“Conservation and Nature Quotes”)
How much land does the government manage?
The answer is surprising: about 670 million acres (Vincent). This statistic got me thinking, how successful is the government in protecting this land and providing safe use for the people? We don’t often think about how much land is in our country, yet this is an important part of environmental protection. I have always been interested in the environment and the ways that it has been harmed or helped. I enjoy spending time outdoors and feel calmer when I am in nature. I wanted to learn more about the land that I get to use and the ways that we can all help. In my research, I found that the government has not been successful, leading to an issue with land management that still exists today. In my writing I will discuss the historical issue, the present issue and ways that we can all help to solve it.
Land management in the United States is complicated, so in my research I focused just on public land managed by the government. Public land is “land belonging to the federal government that is subject to sale or other disposal under general laws” (“Public Lands”). These lands are managed for a variety of purposes, including preservation, recreation, and development of natural resources. They are managed by four main agencies that have different roles (Vincent). Funding for the maintenance and preservation of these lands comes the government budget, and 2018 the total funding for these agencies was $5.1 billion (“Public Funding”). The issues that come from land management are often due to competing interests between the agencies and between congress. See my video to the right where I explain the roles of the main land agencies.
The issue of land management began with settlement in the early 1400’s, and as the British came, land was disputed with Native Americans and other countries. Joint-stock companies, which were owned by many people, were granted charters by England to settle in the colonies during the late 1500’s (Hart, John). After the Revolutionary War, public land policy was enacted (an important part of land management) and it started to address the issue of organizing the newly acquired lands (Hart, Virginia 26).
During 1800’s, in the Ordinance of 1785, revenue was made for the new country through the sale of public lands (Sowards). President Thomas Jefferson also completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 which expanded the total land along with other territories acquired (US History Notes). To address the issue of how to manage and use the new land, the Homestead Act of 1862 made it free to settle on public lands as long as it was cultivated (Hart, Virginia 55-56). During the Gilded Age (1870-1900), the government gave land grants to railroads, which were viewed as national unification, starting a new form of management (Hart, Virginia 59).
After the Gilded Age, environmental conservation policies became more popular and one main achievement was the creation of National Parks to preserve land, which was started by the formation of Yosemite in 1860 (Hart, Virginia 75). The reforms were one of the first times that many people were behind protection of land; however, there was a lack of departments to organize the newly conserved lands (Sowards). In the 1930’s events like the Dust Bowl showed significant land erosion issues, but programs led by President Roosevelt helped to solve the issue by planting trees and by doing erosion and flood management (Hart, Virginia 102).
In the 1940’s attention was put on balancing timber production that supported local economies yet reducing the impact on forests (Hart, Virginia 109). However, these attempts were short lived, and in the 1950’s the housing boom was sustained by timber production in national forests. This wreaked havoc on the environment and showed poor land management, where organizations that were meant to protect the land had let it be destroyed (Sowards).
In the 1960’s, attention to environmental issues increased and focus on resource scarcity helped to enact legislation in 1964 such as the Wilderness Act and the Historic Preservation Act. These acts created new systems and organizations that protected the land and restricted damaging use (Hart, Virginia 114). During the 1970’s, focus on conservation continued and laws were passed that showed the changing era of management and environmentalism. For example, the Federal Policy and Land Management Act of 1976 repealed the Homestead Act of 1862 which had symbolized that there was always “fresh land for a fresh start” (Symbols, Aged and Altered).
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, opposition formed towards the government in the Sagebrush Rebellion, where people of Western states wanted cheaper public land, increased state control and more equal use. Movements in the 1990’s responded to global trade, focusing on public land reforms and higher logging and grazing fees (Sowards). You can read more about the historical issue in my full writing.
Present Day Issue:
The first issue in the present is resource exploitation, where recent laws have focused on increasing this industry on public land. President Donald Trump campaigned for building up businesses such as coal, oil and mining, and in 2018, sections of public land were leased to companies, allowing them to take resources and set up production. The Interior Department has also made similar adjustments, by rolling back restrictions and introducing quicker times for inspection and leasing on lands (Lipton). These adjustments show a direct addressing of resource use, however, it placed importance over environmental protection.
Additionally, there has been a reduction of mining fees in hopes to increase production. Before 2017, there were high mandatory fees for mining on public land, which were meant to offset damages to the environment. The recent lower fees have weakened state and federal land relations and reduced money that went towards species protections (Grandoni). The earlier restrictions were part of land management policy during the Obama administration that aimed to mitigate industry impact and increase land conservation. Changing leadership has lead to a lack of long term protection, especially when there are differing environmental views.
The next main issue is conservation, which can be very complicated, but at the base it is meant to protect species and ecosystems from development and destruction. In 2009, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act was passed, which set aside 2 million acres of land from West Virginia and Washington for conservation. This bill, though it had compromises allowing controversial activities, had large bipartisan support (Sowards).
Multiple use has been a large source of conservation issues, which involves restrictions on what activities are allowed on public lands. The Forest Service has had increasing amounts of activities to monitor, and must manage everything from recreation to grazing and climate control (Anderson). The popular enclave strategy, which says that land is set aside for one use only, has led to many issues involving boundaries and discrepancies between areas. Preservation areas can be next to places that are mined or drilled at, and even though there may be an endangered species on this land, they are managed as separate entities with different laws. As well, species don’t naturally contain themselves within boundaries, so this method can be counter-productive if species aren’t protected when they leave the preservation area (Sax).
Efforts to remove this system have been difficult because of the simplicity of the method and how it doesn’t prioritize one use over another. There has been legislation, though, that aims to force all groups involved on land to do their part to protect it. The Endangered Species Act has required all agencies to protect endangered animals, which focuses on a species as a whole rather than just preservation areas. As well, the Wilderness Management Act requires that all owners of land must work to protect the ecosystem and the overall health of the area (Sax).
Finally, wildfires have become a large issue with more damage each year due to people moving closer to woods and fire prone areas. However, strong efforts to prevent them have not been made due to budget cuts, competing interests and political polarity (Sowards). Burning forests regularly helps to remove overgrowth, cultivate soil and is proven reduce the frequency of wildfires. Old laws have made burns very challenging, which has now created dense forests that are easy to burn (Ngu). The solutions also include new agencies to manage burns, however this is difficult and would need increased funding (Anderson). The present issues today involving land management take a significant toll on our environment, and if they are not solved thoroughly they will continue to be a problem. To learn more about the present issue see my full writing.
“Of all the questions which can come before this nation…there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” – Theodore Roosevelt(“Theodore Roosevelt Quotes”).
Call To Action:
The issue of land management is large, however, there are things we can all do to help solve the problem, including understanding the issue, respecting national land and voting for environmental law. Awareness is important as many people don’t know the scale of management that is required for public lands and the issues that have arisen from this. Organizations help to inform us and make the link from understanding the issue and taking action. The National Resource Defense Council encourages people to protect the environment, suggesting action steps such as reaching out to representatives and saving energy at home.
We should also be aware of our impact when visiting national parks, trying to leave no trace and respecting the wildlife. We can vote on measures that protect the environment and improve land management practices. For example, the Endangered Species Act which helps to protect species at the federal level, has been threatened by recent efforts (Hartl). We should not vote for representatives that support the removal of this bill, but for others that support increased environmental protections.
Large Scale Solutions:
Additional to doing our individual part, there are large scale measures our government can adopt such as improved strategies, more funding in agencies and stronger fire prevention. To solve the issue of the enclave strategy not fully protecting species and habitats, legislation should be passed that makes comprehensive changes to management techniques. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, physical, biological, social, and economic needs of the land should be integrated into legislation and development. This can be implemented through targeted policy, land-user focus and cooperation by all levels of involvement (“Sustainable Land Management”). These strategies should be mandated through law and would increase the importance of environmental protection in development and conservation on public land.
Checks are needed to reduce the number of restrictions being rolled back that make resource exploitation easier and support business over the environment. This can be achieved by requiring studies on the environmental impact before they are passed. Additionally, government organizations, including the Land and Water Conservation fund, are under-funded which has led to lack of consistent management (Siegler). More funding should be allocated to them to help improve staffing, research, and effective management.
Although controlled burning is the most effective way to prevent fires, management has come in the way of prevention on public land. A law should be made requiring regular burning on all forests and should be controlled at the state level as this management is the most effective at enforcement. These solutions, both individual and national, will solve the issue of land management and will create a more prosperous and environmentally stable United States. You can read my full solutions essay here.
Full Works Cited available here.
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