Public lands in the US are controversial as they are important. In this article, we present what constitutes public lands in the US and the history behind them.
In the United States, public lands are the tapestry upon which so many people depend, as well as farming, extractive, tourism, and hunting industries. These industries support local economies. Also, these lands have immeasurable cultural, scientific, and ecological, values.
Public lands in the US make up approximately 25% of the country’s landmass. Most of this 25% is managed by some federal agencies. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 10%, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages 8%, the Fish and Wildlife Service manages 4%, and the National Park Service manages 3%.
Shortly after the inception of the United States as a country, the carving up of its land holdings began. As the United States expanded through territorial acquisitions, the acreage of public lands grew.
With this growth, the US Congress initiated a bonanza of doling out land grants that necessitated giving away public lands to private individuals. The aim was to establish sovereignty over newly acquired territories, promote economic growth, encourage expansion, settlement, and industrialization.
Several years later, an environmental movement began to champion the concept that some public lands should be preserved by the federal government for the broader benefit of the public. Borne out of this movement are the first national monuments and the majority of the national forest lands in place till today.
In 1891, Congress passed the “Forest Reserve Act” that gives the federal government authority to set aside “forest reserves” from public lands, thereby protecting these forested lands from being disposed of in any disguise.
It was held that these forest reserves were to “preserve the fauna, fish, and flora of our country, and become resorts for the people seeking instruction and recreation” and preserve areas of “natural beauty, or remarkable features” and of “unique scientific interest.”
For more than a century now, large parts of federal lands have been designated for the benefit of the American people rather than that of a few. These lands have been set aside for conservation and preservation.
These public lands are currently managed by various federal agencies with diverse mandates derived from the laws and the people. Making the United States one of the few countries in the world where lands are held in trust for the people by the government.
There is a need for continuous collaboration between local and national groups, agencies, and foundations for the future of America’s public lands. These collaborative efforts should be devoid of politics, socio-political boundaries, and historical norms.
There is a need for strategic and concerted efforts. Interest groups must understand that if these lands are transferred or sold to private parties, they will be lost forever. In the end, only a few individuals win, and we all lose.