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Public Land: Everyone’s Land Essay Sample

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Identify the most significant challenges facing policymakers in resolving, identifying, and/or dealing with this problem.

Describe two different perspectives that contribute to our understanding of the environmental challenge that you have identified by evaluating the values and ethics that have contributed to the manifestation of the environmental problem.

Provide a policy recommendation

must reflect an understanding of the legal environment and regulatory mechanism relevant to the policy area under consideration, as well as the important laws and institutions that have significantly affected the policy area


Bob Jones

Ashford University


The very concept of “public land” is one in flux – after all, what we bequeath to future generations also provides a carbon and resource surplus, local recreational opportunities, and quality of life advantages that allow current private entrepreneurial interests, schools, tax bases, and communities to flourish. Policies relating to our forests therefore stride ambiguous definitional priorities: jobs and owls are never 100% separate and discrete. In this paper I propose that policy scholarship regarding public land use in Western United States’ forests has followed an anti-factionalist path, but not the typical path of compromise related to economic versus environmental concerns; instead, that scholarship has treated public land use as a more complex mesh of public and private land concerns that policymakers would be wise to follow.

The governmental and social rights to the grand ephemera of earth – air, water, and land itself — are significant issues in the battle to control resources for money, livelihood, conservation, or aesthetic purposes (Dale, 2011). Rights are issues in that someone with more power grants them, and they are in perennial danger of being taken away. While the water flows indefinitely, control of it is political and laden with power relationships. Balancing these private interests with the public good is a tightrope walked by all environmental policymakers. Someone must make these decisions, and likewise someone must manage that which is collectively owned, or these resources disappear. In the United States, a system of public and private land seems to delineate individual interests from collective ones. However, the air, water, and land mock these borders, and damage inflicted upon public land comes knocking on private landowners’ doors. Further, public lands are often used for private enterprise.

For example, the Bureau of PUBLIC POLICY, EVERYONE’S LAND 3 Land Management manages grazing lands. The National Forest Service plans timber cuts in our forests. Only wilderness areas are meant to be “virgin” spaces – places where wilderness runs wild. Of course, controlled burns, fire management, and public safety trump “nature” even here (Dale, 2011). Treating public and private rights as separate is a common rhetorical tactic in magazine and newspaper coverage of environmental debates, which often feature private businessmen pitted against activist students in a circular debate about who owns communal resources and who can take from them. In the 1980s, the plight of the spotted owl took center stage as an example of this wrangling. Environmentalists, according to the media imagination, wanted owls alive at the cost of human children whose parents lived difficult working class lives in the first place. Their legacy of a forest full of treasured biodiversity was enough to stop the saws.

On the other side, ideologies of human wealth-building, economic well-being, and exploitation of the natural world for human gain trumped. It is easy to see the single-minded story unfold: humans versus nature. Man versus owl. Jobs versus treasures. The timber industry’s cries, while often carried out with haste, are true: human economics does depend on making sure the forest is preserved for generations to come. Man depends on the forest. It does make sense that industry workers have a stake in preserving and replenishing the trees that make it possible for both owls and jobs to survive. While these companies did not often act in their self-avowed “best interest,” it makes sense that timbering the forests is not antithetical to protecting them.

Scientists have eschewed the stark-lined delineation between human needs and environmental ones. Instead, recent scholarship on use of public lands has treated the public and private as entwined. In other words, biologists and environmental studies scholars have not been championing the spotted owl and her kin while deriding the families of timber workers, as the 1980s oppositional media suggested. For example, a group of forest ecology scholars from Oregon recently found that carbon sequestration, or the storing of carbon in order to mitigate global warming, could be balanced vis a vis private land cutting (Thompson et al., 2011). The goal was to initiate timber cutting on federal land in order to preserve biodiversity in the forests. It created areas in which timber cutting would be allowed, and demarcated areas where endangered and threatened species would be protected from human impacts on the forest. Selling timber was restricted to smaller areas in order to meet the minimal goals for carbon degradation proposed in the 1990s in Bill Cinton’s “President’s Plan.”

The Plan irked both environmentalists and timber industry groups, restricting logging while delineating smaller areas to the spotted owls that activists would have liked, and leaving swaths of old growth untouched. In the intervening years, the Plan has seen timber employment decimated and spotted owls declining at about the same rate as their chainsaw-wielding adversaries (Yardly, 2011, A12). Restrictions now span the public and private, and coordination efforts make suggestions like farm-style subsidies and tax credits as conservation incentives (Ho Im, et al., 2010). While the spotted owl has faded in the spotlight and Clintonian economic growth has shifted public sympathies to the lumber industry workers long unemployed and battling federal regulation, the shifting landscape of forest health and species preservation has created a new world in which thinning forests undergoing climate change is a public and ecosystem advantage, even for environmental activists.

The analysis that carbon sequestering can be managed federally through both public land cutting and private tax incentives takes the onus of environmental damage off the federally protected forests and instead highlights the role that policy must play managing both federal and private timber. This study suggests that paying attention to private landowners’ timbering is part and parcel of managing the federally held forests. Another discussion on the forests emphasizes that timber is crucial to the economic interests of the area. It contends that with the fall of timber, other sources of revenue have emerged from the forest canopy, but none as extensive and with a breadth of existing, viable markets as timber. The experts cite watershed, hunting as recreational income, carbon trading, and non-timber forest products (“Keeping Forests,” 2006). In the end, emphasizing the future potential of these options is positive, but unworkable in the present.

We can only be successful by emphasizing “new public-private nongovernmental collaboration with a common goal, regardless of the motives. It begins with progressive public policies — federal, state, and local – in forested rural areas to encourage a vibrant forest economy” (ibid., 2006, pp.42). Another forest investor even walks the walk of collaboration, asserting that private interests in the service of the environment is a new policy direction that would afford collaboration and reduce polarization; it would also stabilize forest ecosystems currently subject to the rise and fall of public funding.

Another study concurs that public land use is tethered to private through a labyrinthine system of ecologies. When environment is valued for singular resources, such as timber, the authors argue, other ecosystems are elided (Thompson, et al., 2011, 973). Thus, streams and runoff that leave national lands and impact the ecosystems of nearby private farms or plantations don’t get their due in policymaking on the forest. Of course, this tactic pays rhetorical attention to collaboration between public and private while taking issue with forest investors’ claims that no other forest industries provide sustainable income for participants. With timber gone, would entrepreneurial and innovative ideas about forest resources create new markets? Would mushrooms and carbon trading fill the gap that timber left?

The controversy about roadless areas in the national forests highlights the needless bifurcation between industrial and environmental interests. The Forest Service’s “Roadless Rule” sought to set national standards on states’ ability to puncture the forest with access roads – access for industry, but also for recreation, conservationists, and those who would enjoy public lands. The rule was proposed by the Clinton administration and, though litigated extensively, had broad public support for roadlessness as a way to protect habitat and water resources. Some believed the rule created de facto “wilderness” areas – something that overstepped the authority of the Forest Service and belonged in the realm of elected congressional officials. Simplistic

PUBLIC POLICY, EVERYONE’S LAND 7 views such as this one belied the public support, instead arguing that anyone who lived in a house (not a tree?) would understand the need for roads development in forest lands: The most passionate of conservationists may well believe that we need not another log, or another lump of coal, extracted from a national forest. Those who need to live in homes or drive cars — or those who understand the need to transport goods — may have a different view. The balance in a dilemma of this nature should fall to our representative form of government. Elected representatives from all reaches of the country should decide how much of our federal land can be used for extraction of commodities or recreational activities, and how much should simply sit dormant for the conservation of habitat and wildlife. Representative governance has long served this country well (Laugesen, 2012).

Public furor proves as easy to come by as Clinton’s public support in this article, and the opinions on the roadless rule highlight the rhetorical spin on Clinton’s objectives. Environmentalists believed that some lands were vulnerable to state definitional gerrymandering, and that states could fenangle roads by standards less stringent than national standards directed. Others argued that rural mountain communities had differing needs and national standards precluded local need, creating a burden on these communities from an elitist left.

The rhetorical polarization of the popular press seems a foregone conclusion. However, what can policymakers take from the scientific rhetoric of compromise and integration in order to avoid policies that spend decades in the court system and leave activists on “both” sides of the issue feeling alienated and demoralized? For the most part, we as a national voting public do live in homes and drive cars. We do not, however, believe that the resources for running those things needs to come from public lands on which we also feel entitled to play, work, and preserve for our children. Treating public resources as both environmental and economic is one step toward mitigating the furor, as is treating public and private ecosystems as one in the same. As we move forward in a global economy, we can see that the management of the public alongside the private creates a more scientific approach to preserving our ecosystems.

Managing private plantations as well as public lands becomes important when an increasing number of our global forests are both privately held and mono-crops, suggesting that perhaps policy about public lands should be simply renamed “policy about land” and all earth-based resources treated equally under federal law to avoid land owners supplanting public-land timber companies as environmental destroyers. Ecologists’ arguments strengthen this position; they suggest that the leaky boundaries between habitats should influence critical discussions about the loss of ecosystems held in common, including oceans and air, but also down to mangroves and coral reefs. When regulation affects public land, it trickles into private water sources and vice versa.

Barriers to communication and misunderstandings about our resources and the land’s inability to fit into clean governmental categories means that the public and private might benefit from egalitarian regulation that recognizes their interdependence. Current laws governing the forests allow for private interests within the confines of the public good – shouldn’t privately held lands be managed within national borders as national resources as well, rather than be written off for the short-term goals of the land owning classes?

Some analyses of the public/private land divide concerning wildlife and recreation find that states can increase hunting license revenue by helping private landowners find ways to allow “public” access to “private” land. Deer, of course, move in and out of public and private boundaries and these authors urge policymakers to consider ways to account for payment to landowners, incentives for marketing, or other financial “collective” investment in the private in order to benefit the recreational offerings of the area and presumably the infrastructure of the community (Poudyal, et al., 2012, 141).

Policymakers working to balance biodiversity and allow communal access to land and resources have suffered from a lack of access to scientific understandings of environmental complexity, instead focusing on discrete areas of public land use, such as roads or timber, at the cost of the breadth of ecosystem damage filtering into the private and entrepreneurial worlds as a result of a myopic focus on the public forest and its trees as a locus of instability. In truth, entire rural systems from homes to water and air, health and education, attracting new businesses and educated workers, rely on cogent forest policy decisions that build on scholarly attention to the shrinking divide between our public and private spaces.


Dale, L. (2011). Environmental policies. San Diego: Bridgeport Education, Inc.

Ho Im, Eum, Darius M. Adams, and Gregory S. Latta (2010). The Impacts of Changes in
Federal Timber Harvest on Forest Carbon Sequestration in Western Oregon.
Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 40.9 (Sept. 2010), 1710-1723.

“Keeping Forests in Forest.” (2006, January 1). American Forests. 26-41.

Laugesen, Wayne. (2012, May 19). Overturn Forest Service Roadless Rule. (Poll). The
Colorado Springs Gazette. Accessed at http://www.gazette.com/articles/country-138850-overturn-down.html.

Nie, Martin. (2004). Administrative Rulemaking and Public Lands Conflict: The Forest
Service’s Roadless Rule. Natural Resources Journal. 44.3 687-742.

Poudyal, Neelam C., Bowker, J.M., Green, Gary T. and Michael A. Human. (2012). Supply of Private Acreage for Recreational Deer Hunting in Georgia. Dimensions of Wildlife 17.2 (Mar/Apr 2012), 141-154.

Thompson, Ian D., Okabe, Kimiko, Tylianakis, Jason M., Kumar, Pushpam, Brockerhoff, Eckehard G., Schellhorn, Nancy A., Parrotta, John A., Nasi, Robert (2011). Forest Biodiversity and the Delivery of Ecosystem Goods and Services: Translating Science into Policy. Bioscience. 61.12, 972-981.

Yardly, William. (2011, July 1). 20 Years Later, A Plan to Save Spotted Owls. New York Times. New York Edition, A12.

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