America’s national forests, refuges and other public lands are one of the most successful ideas our nation has ever created, and it’s heart-wrenching to see them at the center of a dispute that has spiraled needlessly into violence and the loss of life.
Whether it’s self-styled militants in Oregon or legislators in Boise, there is little sense in painting a target on a resource that has benefited so many for so long.
Together, Americans own 193 million acres of national forests and 245 million acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management. These lands have been a vital part of the nation’s fabric for a century, providing sustained yields of timber and valuable minerals, world-class fish and wildlife, vast recreational opportunities and drinking water.
As one who spent 40 years in public land management for federal agencies and the state of Idaho, I’ve seen my share of disputes over public lands and resources. It hasn’t always been pretty, but amid disagreements, there’s always been recognition of how vital public lands are to the American people and especially to the health of many Western economies and communities.
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When laws are broken and public lands exploited, local communities suffer most. Westerners know this, which is why collaboration and forging common ground — not breaking the law — are the norm for settling disagreements.
Situations like an armed takeover usually happen when outsiders exploit a situation for self-interest. The consistent attempts in Idaho and other legislatures to seize control of public lands are a perfect example. Public land grab efforts almost never rise up from local communities. They are instead galvanized by partisan politics, mainly at the national level, where the real agenda is wresting public lands from public hands and ultimately privatizing them for nonpublic uses.
As a forest supervisor and director of the BLM during the George W. Bush administration, I know well there are problems with the current public lands system that need fixing. Managing public lands for multiple uses is complicated, and the task is growing more so as America grows and changes.
Given the complexities, it’s difficult to find the right balance. In almost every decision land managers make, someone is displeased.
But the answer is certainly not taking away public lands, as some would have us believe. “Transferring control” of public lands to states will almost surely result in parcels being auctioned off; states simply can’t afford the management costs. Once public lands are privatized, Americans will lose access to them, forever.
Instead of a massive land transfer, we should work for solutions that keep public lands in public hands. Any solution has to start with local communities. Luckily, this is something Idaho knows how to do.
When Idaho developed its own federal rule for managing national forest roadless areas, we reached out to counties and asked them to lead the effort. Working with folks on the ground — hunters, anglers, campers, loggers, foresters and biologists — county commissioners embraced the challenge. In the end, Idaho ended up with a plan that, through hard work and compromise, addressed the needs of everyone involved.
There’s a valuable lesson here. The entire land transfer debate is driven by national politics. Much like the standoff in Oregon, it reeks of outside influence and does not serve the people of Idaho.
Frustration around public lands is real. But that doesn’t make violence the right response or land transfers a realistic solution. The best answer to our problems is to join hands to fix the management, and to keep the truly greedy hands driving this debate off our public lands.
Jim Caswell served as director of the Bureau of Land Management under Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. He also headed Idaho’s Office of Species Conservation under Govs. Kempthorne, Risch and Otter.