Private Use of Public Lands

New industry strategies for gaining control of natural resources on the nation's public lands worry conservationists

  • Daniel Glick
  • Jun 01, 1997
When Ken Sleight heard last October that a road crew was on its way to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land near his Utah home, he headed for the site too. A horse outfitter with 40 years of experience, Sleight had long been aware of conflicts over the region's public lands. Now one of those struggles was unfolding practically in his backyard.

The county planned to run road-building machinery over a trail near Hart's Point, an area under consideration for roadless wilderness status. At the site, Sleight and other onlookers watched as a BLM official told a road crew it was in trespass on the federal land. Ignoring him, workers scraped metal over the arid landscape, and the trail became a road. Later, the county agreed not to enlarge disputed routes pending the outcome of a court case brought by the U.S. Justice Department. Still, the new scar means Hart's Point is no longer "roadless wilderness"--and therefore likely no longer a candidate for wilderness designation. Says Sleight, "This land belongs to all our country's citizens. San Juan County had no right to desecrate it."

While the county certainly would argue with Sleight's rhetoric, officials knew full well the construction would change the status of Hart's Point. Road building, in fact, is one of several strategies increasingly being used to lay claim to many of America's 623 million acres of federal lands for private uses.

Hart's Point was not the only site of a sudden road-building project in Utah last October. Just weeks earlier, President Clinton had created the 1.7-million acre Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument in the state, commenting, "We can't have mines everywhere, and we shouldn't have mines that threaten our national treasures." The move effectively stopped private uses of the land dead in their tracks--including a proposed industrial trucking route and plans for mining that would have transformed parts of the desert habitat into a coal pit. In response, officials in three counties, including San Juan, sent crews to grade roads on federal lands within and outside the new monument.

That high-profile struggle has raised the question: How do the nation's citizens--the lands' owners--want their public lands managed? The answer has tremendous implications for wildlife, habitat and the health of ecosystems on federal lands.

Extensive scientific studies on past use yield plenty of examples throughout the West. Decades of livestock overgrazing are a significant factor in the loss of habitat for hundreds of species of plants and wildlife. Mining for gold, silver and other metals has caused pollution in streams and rivers. Salmon are threatened in some Oregon national forests from mining operations that literally dig up streambeds to find gold. More than 300 species federally listed as threatened or endangered depend on public lands for survival, and even there they are increasingly at risk. To name just one example, grizzly-human encounters that result in bear deaths take place at much higher rates in areas with roads--including roads built for industry use.

When Congress considered a bill last year that would have given grazing priority on federal "rangelands" over other uses, representatives found themselves deluged with visits and letters on the subject not only from the usual environmentalists and ranchers, but also from hunters, anglers, birders and other interested citizens. "In this day and age, people in New York have a substantial interest in what happens in southern Utah," says Robert Keiter, a professor at Utah State University College of Law. "Today, there are a lot more diverse interests that have to be taken into account."

During the last Congress, legislators introduced bills to close down some national parks, give 270 million acres of BLM lands to the states and sell off some national forest lands to ski areas. None of these proposals succeeded, in large part because they prompted a collective cry of outrage from the American public. But that doesn't mean the subject is closed. Congress is now considering legislation to transfer management--and ultimately ownership--of some national forest and BLM lands to the states.

"The big story of the last Congress was where legislators started and where they ended up on environmental issues," says Glenn Sugameli, NWF counsel for the national office of conservation programs. "What stopped them was grass-roots opposition. The people have to do it because it's their air, their water and their public lands. Unfortunately, it looks like during this Congress, the people will have to do it once again."

Anyone wrestling over protection and control of federal lands may encounter some of the following strategies for favoring private interests--some old and some new.

The Land Giveaway

The most blatant tactic involves Congress giving away federal lands to the states. Under federal law, private uses such as grazing, mining and logging must be balanced with other uses--such as recreation and habitat needs of wildlife. Citizens can participate in the management a number of ways, including public comment at various stages and appeals of decisions.

Most states, on the other hand, do not require that public lands--including those transferred from federal ownership--be managed for multiple uses. Some states historically have decided the best economic use of the land is to sell it; Nevada has sold to private interests all but 3,000 acres of the millions of acres it inherited with statehood. And most western states make revenue from their lands a top priority. "That places a major emphasis on resource extraction, often at the expense of wildlife and recreation," says public-lands expert Cathy Carlson of NWF's Rocky Mountain office in Boulder, Colorado. "A lot of the users of public lands are driven by greed. Having cows out as long as possible, cutting as many trees as possible, drilling as many oil wells as possible: It's only things that bring an immediate economic return that count to these industries."

According to Steve Thomas, a former Teton County commissioner who lobbies in Wyoming for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, industry lobbyists have extraordinary influence over lawmakers at the state level. "They're closer to the people, all right," he says. "They're closer to the industry people."

Conservationists are concerned that under state control, the national interest will lose out to local economic interests. A current case in Alaska illustrates that point, though it is more a tug-of-war than a giveaway. At issue is the ownership of submerged lands bordering the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If a judge rules the federal government owns the land, oil drilling in the wildlife-rich coastline is unlikely. "If Alaska gets the land, the state is going to lease it for oil drilling," says Ann Rothe, executive director of Trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit environmental law firm. "The state has made that abundantly clear."

The Control Giveaway

For conservationists, land giveaways are alarming, but subtler approaches also have them concerned. Because the lands belong to the nation's citizens, our elected officials are effectively the gatekeepers, and those who are development-friendly are trying many different tactics. "They are going to probe and prod and figure out where they can make headway," says Mike Matz, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a nonprofit conservation group. Says Pete Frost, an NWF attorney in the Western Natural Resource Center in Portland, Oregon, "We will have a harder fight if the proposals aren't as sweeping." 

Some members of Congress have tried to alter management guidelines, such as the attempt mentioned above to make grazing a priority use of public lands. Another example is legislation under consideration by Congress to give precedence to the timber industry on national forest and BLM lands. The bill would cut back public involvement in forest management and restrict laws protecting habitat for threatened and endangered species. As of this writing, the measure is expected to be debated this summer.

The oil and gas industry also wants special consideration. One scenario promoted by industry has the states taking over decision-making about whether oil and gas development conflicts with other uses. Conservationists are concerned the states would not take into account the combined effects of such impacts as more roads and people, habitat fragmentation and pollution.

Lands under federal control are difficult enough to safeguard, say conservationists, without yielding management decisions to others. Consider the example of a proposal for a new northern access road into Denali National Park in Alaska. Proponents say the road would increase tourism. But the plan also would bring development and deliver traffic to the area around famous Wonder Lake--a location that Chip Dennerlein, Alaska regional director for the National Parks and Conservation Association, calls "the heart of the park." Says Dennerlein, "The proposed new road would change the character of Denali National Park forever."

Still, argue conservationists, at least federal control makes public lands subject to national laws. That means, for example, that federal land managers who have been petitioned to open several thousand oil and gas wells in southwestern Wyoming must consider cumulative impacts. Among the wildlife species that could be impacted by the projects are elk, mule deer, moose and the largest migrant pronghorn herd in the United States.

Also, management decisions for federal lands can be challenged in federal court. Case in point: Nine environmental groups, including the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, have appealed plans to drill for oil and gas in the Shoshone National Forest, which includes winter range for mountain goats, bighorn sheep and elk.

Road Construction

As in the cases in Utah last fall, there have been rushes to build roads on public lands all over the West. The key is an 1866 statute known as RS2477, which counties and others have taken to mean they can pave and improve trails--even if the road is on federal land.

The federal government doesn't recognize these tracks as bonafide rights of way, and a court case is pending on interpretations of RS2477. Depending on its outcome, Congress may consider legislation that allows local politicians to decide what is and what isn't a county road. As any wildlife biologist will tell you, roads increase the likelihood of human-wildlife interaction and usually lead to increased habitat fragmentation and wildlife mortality. "RS2477 is the most insidious threat to federal lands that there is," says Matz of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

After watching the road construction last October, outfitter Sleight might agree. For the rest of us, no matter where the pressure comes from on our lands, the question remains: What future do we want for our shared property and its natural resources?

Colorado writer Daniel Glick has roamed public lands for more than 20 years.

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