December 1996 Home   Newsletters

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February 1997

President's Message (Astrid Monson)
League Testifies on Proposed Tax Changes (Astrid Monson)
December General Membership Planning Meeting (Jean Aoki & Astrid Monson)
Member Alert
This Land Was Your Land (Donella Meadows)
In Memoriam
Sexual Harassment (Ina Percival)
Vote Count (Arlene Ellis)
Domestic Violence and Welfare (Suzanne Meisenzahl)
Planning & Zoning Committee Needs More Members (Astrid Monson)
Membership
Orientation Meeting (Grace Furukawa)

This Land Was Your Land

An Owners' manual for the national lands

From The Amicus Journal, Winter 1996

There is a virulent movement in the West and now in the Congress to give federal lands "back" to the states – as if the states had ever owned them.

Of course, the original owners were the Naive Americans. In the West, the Spanish took the lands, and then the American people either bought or fought for them. (At the time, those American people lived in the East. The western states did not exist yet.) Then the easterners, through their federal government, gave the land away. They gave 287 million acres to homesteaders, 94 million acres to railroad companies, 61 million acres to veterans, and (westerners please note) 328 million to the newly forming states.

Hundreds of millions of acres of deserts, mountains, and high plains went unclaimed. They became the core of what we now know as the federal lands. Since then some lands have been bought and sold, some eastern lands have become federalized, Alaska has been added to the legacy. The upshot is that each lucky citizen of this nation now holds a share in 726 million acres of federal land.

You and I own the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Utah Canyonlands, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Everglades. The Appalachian Trail and the battlefield at Gettysburg are ours, as are the snow-bright peaks of Mt. Hood in Oregon and Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. No other people in the world hold such a huge treasure in common for the benefit of everyone.

One-fourth of our nation's area is federal land. (Three out of four acres are privately owned.) Common ownership means we have to share the lands fairly and manage them jointly. Those two tasks have never been easy. They get harder as our numbers grow and as private lands are more fully exploited. Most of us have paid no attention to the management of our lands, and so, like any unguarded treasure, the lands have attracted thieves, some of who are now in Congress. They are aiming to legalize their pilfering and that of their friends through four basic strategies:

  • Sell the lands or their resources to corporations or individuals, usually at far less than market value.

  • Give them to the states, where bribes are cheaper than they are in Washington.

  • Slash federal funds for administering the lands, so unlawful exploiters will not get caught.

  • Waive, weaken, or eliminate the laws that limit exploitation of the lands.

We owners had better wake up. The first thing we need to do is take an inventory of what we have and its condition.

The largest chunk of our land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, not-so-fondly known as the BLM. BLM land totals about 268 million acres, nearly all in Alaska and eleven western states. Much of this land is used by ranchers for grazing - some of it abusive overgrazing at a bargain price. Virtually any other use is permitted, from mining to hiking to roaring around in all-terrain vehicles. The BLM lands are the ones Congress wants to give to the states.

The next biggest asset is run by the National Forest Service: 191 million acres in forty-four states. By law these forests should be managed for recreation, wildlife, and long-term timber production. Lately they have been run like a business in liquidation. Timber cuts have gone far over sustainable yields, clearcuts erode steep slopes, logging rights have been sold so cheap that the Forest Service (and thus the taxpayer) loses money on nearly every deal.

Our National Wildlife Refuges, managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, amount to 87.4 million acres. The first priority on these lands is supposed to be wildlife protection. Hunting, fishing, and other recreational uses are allowed, and sometimes livestock grazing and mineral extraction. Some in Congress think it is a great idea to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Then there are the crown jewels, the National Parks. There are 368 of them, covering 77 million acres in forty-nine states. No logging, mining, or other extractive activities (except extracting money from tourists) are allowed on these scenic lands. Tourist concessions in the parks are lucrative monopolies for which our federal managers collect too little rent. Some of the parks are overcrowded; there are arguments about building more roads and hotels. Some members of Congress think we should sell off national parks to balance the budget. A bill was introduced in the House to set up a commission to recommend which parks to close down - no public input allowed. The House voted down the bill; but the bill's sponsor simply turned around and hitched it to a major budget bill instead.

The remaining federal lands are used by the military (and contain some of the nation's worst toxic dumps) or for federal buildings and monuments.

You can see that our lands are being managed more for the good of a few people over the short term than for the good of all the people over the long term. As with other issues, Congress has done the right thing to bring this problem to public attention. As with other issues, most of the solutions Congress is coming up with will make the problem not just a little worse, but much worse.

Donella Meadows

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