May 10, 2018 | By:
Gila National Forest, Gila Wilderness Area, c/o Dave Foreman



One Third of the Nation’s Land was the title of the report from the congressionally set-up Public Land Law Review Commission in 1970, and one-third of the nation’s land is yours and mine. Not the timber companies’. Not the land and cattle companies’. Not the mining companies’. Not the rich folks’. Not the land speculators’. Ours. One-third of the acreage of the United States of America is yet owned by her citizens and overseen by the federal government—740 million acres in all. These are the National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management lands. Moreover, the sundry states own on behalf of their citizens another 197 million acres, such as grazing and oil leasing lands in the West, timber lands in the East and West Coast, and state parks, state forests, and state hunting areas in all of them.1 All of this came out of Yellowstone National Park, Adirondack Forest Preserve, and President Harrison’s forest reserves.

These lands are why the United States has a conservation legacy unmatched elsewhere in the world. Underline that last sentence. As I have learned more about international conservation, I’ve wondered why the whole game of protecting land seems easier in the United States (not that it’s easy here, but alongside other countries we are better off). Our public lands are the answer. I know of no other country that has such a set-up with its citizens owning and having a strong say in the running of one-third of the country’s land acreage. Two federal laws above all give citizens and their clubs sturdy handles to help guide stewardship of the public lands: the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Canada has something like our public lands—Crown Lands—but they are not like National Forests or even BLM lands. For one thing, they are not even under multiple-use management, but are wide-open to be leased long-term to logging or mining companies. For another, although Crown Lands are owned by the nation of Canada, the provinces, not the feds, run them. The mighty woe of this is that if acreage is to be set aside, it is the province alone who can do it—or not do it. (However, the federal government can set up National Parks, which they run.) There are Provincial Parks throughout Canada, but they are not like our National Parks; they are much more like our National Forests. Australia has a set-up much like Canada’s. Moreover, willingness to set aside land as parks or such hangs on the political party running the province or state in their parliamentary set-ups. Neither country has the kind of federal laws the US has such as the Wilderness Act, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act, and others for the whole country and that give citizens a mighty hand in helping to shape policy. (Canada does have an endangered species law, but it is not as tough as that of the US. However, Canada’s National Parks are a match for those in the US.) Mexico is even worse in having almost no public lands. Nearly all lands in our neighbor to the south are privately owned or owned by ejidos, communal lands for underwriting a village. Mexico’s National Parks are often on private or ejido land and mean little. One such is the Toluca Nevada National Park; an ejido owns all but a few thousand acres on top of the volcano owned by the federal government and only those lands are protected by park guards (to keep divers from looting artifacts from the two Toltec sacrifice lakes).2 Only a few such as Pinacate in Sonora south of Arizona are truly federal lands.

Bighorn sheep, Missouri Wild & Scenic River, c/o Dave Foreman

Bighorn sheep, Missouri Wild & Scenic River, c/o Dave Foreman

In no other nation do citizens have as many handles on the gears of political conservation as do those of the United States and none have anything like our federal public lands. The United States is a standalone nation for conservation most of all for the public lands and a steadily more open door for citizen input on their stewardship. Our matchless system of U.S. public lands is the key for our gains in conservation notwithstanding the economic, political, and philosophical might of those fighting protection of public lands in the United States: resource agencies, corporations, politicians, landscalpers, motor-bound brats, Nature haters, and conspiracy nuts. Indeed, though the slaughter of wild things goes on, in the United States at least, conservationists have done one heck of a job against the mighty landscalpers of dollar-fat businesses ransacking the land with political help from agency managers who love the sound of drill rigs and chainsaws. Public lands have not been given the acknowledgment for this that they are owed, although much of conservation has been and will go on being about how to steward public lands.3

Gila National Forest, Gila Wilderness Area, c/o Dave Foreman

Fall Aspens, Gila National Forest, Gila Wilderness Area, c/o Dave Foreman

Back in Earth First! in the 1980s, I puzzled over why Canada and Australia were able to mobilize many more folks for civil disobedience than we could in the United States. At last it dawned on me that wildlovers in Canada and Australia did not have the legislative handles to lawfully sway or thwart government ransacking of wildlands or snuffing of wildlife that we had in the United States—the Wilderness Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Forest Management Act, to name only a few. Therefore, they often had no way to fight landscalping but to stand in front of the bulldozers or chainsaws. After the breakup of Earth First! in 1990, some former Earth First!ers started tough, uncompromising teams such as the Center for Biological Diversity to work within the system to make federal agencies follow the law to shield wild neighborhoods and list Threatened and Endangered Species. Thanks to our (US) public lands and the laws dealing with them, such “paper monkeywrenching” worked better than direct action overall against harmful grazing, logging, drilling, and other exploitation.

When I think about it, I have to chortle that the set-up to pay off the war debt of the American Revolution had the unforeseen witchery to bring about our unmatched conservation heritage. Death tales from the Killing Decades and the awfulness of landscalping in the US notwithstanding, we have a gift of great worth in our public lands. Without them, wild things would be in far worse shape than they are in the US. We conservationists should never brook mistaken catcalls from “new conservationists” that our hoary conservation path has failed owing to the weight we give to set-aside public lands.

Mind you, I am not saying that America’s public lands are flawless or the best they can be. They are far from that. After all, the shortcomings of our public lands are what this book is about. But we have them! And that is wonderful and worth more than we often think.


Public lands are not of one kind. This rather jumbled line-up of managing agencies is another way the United States stands out in conservation—since the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) in 1976, which was the “organic act” for the Bureau of Land Management and which once and for all did away with disposal. Public lands are now all stacked into one of the systems of public lands. These systems are under sundry managing agencies, with a jumble of mandates. Many state lands are also dealt out into two or more state systems under different agencies. This chapter and the next are about the federal systems of public lands, how each came about, and how each is cared for.

Most federal land is overseen by one of four government agencies, each part of a cabinet-level department:

Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, MT, c/o Dave Foreman

Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, MT, c/o Dave Foreman

U.S. Forest Service (USFS or FS)—Department of Agriculture: National Forests (NFs), National Grasslands, some National Recreation Areas (NRAs), and a few National Monuments. 193 million acres in forty-three states and Puerto Rico. These are “multiple-use” lands—unless designated Wilderness Areas—mostly open to commercial timber cutting, livestock grazing, mining, energy drilling and digging, dams, power-line and pipeline rights-of-way, road-building (the USFS is the world’s biggest road-managing agency with over 400,000 miles, from two-tracks to paved), off-road vehicle (ORV) play, firewood gathering, built campgrounds, outfitter camps, privately owned cabins on leased NF land, trapping, and hunting and fishing. National Forest lands can also be leased by businesses for ski areas and other resorts, though the Forest Service must, with our input, write Environmental Impact Statements to say how such are to be run. Ranchers graze livestock in many NF Wilderness Areas—an unhappy compromise for getting the Wilderness Act through Congress. The “line officer” hierarchy is Chief, Regional Foresters, National Forest Supervisors, and District Rangers.

Yosemite National Park 1977

Yosemite National Park 1977

National Park Service (NPS)—Department of the Interior: National Parks (NPs), National Monuments (NMs), National Seashores and Lakeshores, National Recreation Areas (NRAs), National Preserves, and other areas, including historical and cultural sites. Almost 80 million acres in all fifty states and some overseas territories. NPS lands are on the whole not open to hunting, livestock grazing, logging, mining, or energy gobbling, and vehicles must stay on roads or designated routes; but there are striking exceptions. Parks are not shielded from development, however. Industrial tourism can have a big and often nasty footprint in Parks: paved highways, hotels, stores, cruise ships, overflights, helicopter tours, snowmobiles, even ski areas, and other plush, tawdry, or thrilling merriments can leave wild things tattered. The line officer hierarchy is Director, Regional Directors, and National Park Superintendents.

Bosque del Apache NWR, NM, c/o Dave Foreman

Sandhill Cranes silhuetted in fog, Bosque del Apache NWR, NM, c/o Dave Foreman

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS or FWS)—Department of the Interior: National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs). 150 million acres in every state and in many island possessions of the US. Although NWRs are for wildlife production and habitat stewardship, some are open to logging, mining, energy extraction, livestock grazing, speedboats, and ORVs. Many NWRs also have public hunting and fishing areas. Moreover, few are taken care of mainly for threatened or rare species; nearly all were set up to make sure there would be plenty of ducks and geese and big game for hunting. However, refuge managers were on the whole more for Wilderness Area designation on their refuges than were managers in other agencies. Not only are some of the wildest and best-cared-for Wilderness Areas on National Wildlife Refuges but also some of the best Wilderness boundaries are on NWRs thanks to the way refuge managers backed Wilderness. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska may be the best-stewarded Wilderness Area in the US. I think of it as the Flagship of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Alas, the biggest and wildest refuge in the lower 48 states, Cabeza Prieta in western Arizona on the Mexican border, has had its once-untracked Sonoran Desert flats shredded by unlawful immigrants, drug smugglers, and U.S. Border Patrol vehicles running amuck in designated Wilderness, to the deep unhappiness of refuge staff.

Bears Ears National Monument (deleted), San Juan River/Cedar Mesa BLM WSA, UT, c/o Dave Foreman

Bears Ears National Monument (deleted); San Juan River/Cedar Mesa BLM WSA, UT, c/o Dave Foreman

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—Department of the Interior: National Conservation Areas (NCAs), newly set-up National Monuments (since the late-1990s), and undesignated public lands. 268.5 million acres in twenty-eight states (thirteen of these states outside the West have rather piddling acreages). These are multiple-use lands, like the National Forests, but often with even less oversight from the agency. Strong steps were taken by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and President Bill Clinton at the end of Clinton’s administration by wielding the Antiquities Act to withdraw large areas for National Monuments in many western states. For the most, these new Monuments were kept under the BLM and not shuffled over to the National Park Service. A good fallout from this is that it gave BLM a big acreage of semi-protected land to care for and called for more BLM staff given to land caring instead of resource exploitation. However, these National Monuments are only as good as the management plan for each. BLM set up the National Landscape Conservation System for these National Monuments, along with Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Wild & Scenic Rivers, and such under BLM jurisdiction. The line officers are Director, State Director, District Manager, and Area Manager.


Millions of acres of other federal lands are under the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps of the Department of Defense: reservations, ranges, test sites, forts, ports, and bases. These lands are almost always not open to the public, but some have outstanding natural areas and homes for Endangered and Threatened Species. Sometimes these lands and wildlife are well sheltered and cared for under good stewardship plans. Make no mistake, however, the “mission” of the base always comes first. Military lands are most often not thought of as public lands. Some other federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers have recreational lands in small bits, and the Department of Energy and some others manage land but not for public use.

These systems did not leap from Uncle Sam’s forehead fully made, nor did they grow in a thoughtful way, but came about in a willy-nilly tumble, with business keeping as much sway over them as it could for as long as it could, while conservationists and some agency people tried to run them for the good of all the people and even for the good of the land. The endless tug of war between dollar-driven businesses and thrill-driven motorheads, federal resourcists, and wild-loving citizen conservationists shaped and made the public lands what they are today.

As much as the Bill of Rights, our public lands define who we are as Americans and have been key to what gains wildlovers have made in the United States.

In the next chapter of THE GREAT CONSERVATION DIVIDE, Foreman delves more deeply into the federal public land systems. Look for an updated second edition that will be available in a few months.


1 There are over 6,600 state parks with 14 million acres of land.
2 Brian Miller, pers. corres.
3 The key books for understanding the public lands as a whole are Bernard Shanks, This Land Is Your Land (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1984); Dyan Zaslowsky and T. H. Watkins, These American Lands (The Wilderness Society and Island Press, Washington, 1994); and William K. Wyant, Westward In Eden: The Public Lands and the Conservation Movement (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982). There are also guidebooks to the National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and Wilderness Areas, as well as websites for the sundry agencies.

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