Public Land Issues
May 1, 2001 --
Our federal public lands, namely the National Parks, National Forests,
BLM Lands, National Wildlife Refuges, and National Marine Sanctuaries
are continually plagued with a wide range of problems from damaging
mining activities to questionable land exchanges to invasions of
exotic species. Because these lands are owned by the diverse American
public, they must be shared amongst countless interests. Consequently,
it is no surprise that management issues are accompanied by fierce
controversy as the opinions and desires of the public come into conflict
over these collectively owned lands. Today's most prominent issues
can be divided into the following categories: commercial use and
resource extraction, public use, changes in status and ownership,
and ecological health.
Commercial Use and Resource Extraction
Mining, logging, oil and gas extraction, grazing, and commercial
fishing are probably the most controversial public lands issues for
many reasons. First is the obvious problem of resource depletion;
our forests, fisheries, rangelands and fossil fuels are being consumed
at unsustainable rates, and as a result our supplies are constantly
dwindling. Secondly, the removal of resources and the methods by
which they are extracted are having profound negative impacts on
- Mining is the top toxic polluter of all U.S. industry,
causing extremely severe soil and water pollution.
- Logging has destroyed
over 95% of our original old growth forests, resulting in widespread
habitat loss, water pollution, severe soil
erosion and nutrient
loss, and many other negative impacts.
- Oil and gas activities cause a wide
range of damage including air pollution, countless leaks and
spills, and destruction of wildlife habitat due to
the construction of massive industrial facilities.
- Widespread grazing impacts (water pollution, forage loss, spread of disease, etc)
have resulted in the listing of 90 threatened and endangered
- Many commercial fishing techniques completely destroy marine
habitats, greatly threatening biodiversity and fisheries sustainability.
these commercial activities (with the exception of fishing) are
heavily subsidized by taxpayer money, a phenomenon known as "corporate
welfare". Americans are paying large industrial corporations
and ranchers to deplete our resources and destroy our environment
on our public lands.
Public Use Issues
The issues of Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) use, excess visitation, and
user fees are very difficult to resolve because they involve limiting
public use of lands that are publicly owned. Unfortunately these
issue areas, though very different from one another, are all negatively
impacting public lands in their own ways.
- ORVs cause widespread habitat
damage, air and water pollution, and conflicts with other recreational
users. However, ORV users believe
they have a right to recreate on public lands.
- Excess visitation has placed tremendous stress on our public lands (particularly
National Parks) in the forms of vehicle traffic,
air pollution, noise, and
increased development. It is very difficult for public land managers
to determine how to balance visitation with conservation.
- Our public
lands agencies are severely under-funded, and as a result our
public lands are suffering in various ways. Many agencies have
new or increased user fees under the new "fee-demo" program
to help remedy the situation, however this has been an extremely controversial
as many groups feel they are being overcharged to use the lands that
Changes in Status and Ownership
In theory, our public lands are managed to promote conservation,
sustainable use, and preservation for future generations. Consequently,
changes in land status or ownership can affect the land's level of
protection. Current issues in this category include the Antiquities
Act, roadless areas, land exchanges, and urban encroachment.
- The Antiquities
Act allows the President of the United States to act promptly
to protect threatened lands by designating them as
National Monuments. Many government officials feel that the
Act has been abused by past presidents (especially Clinton) and
to limit the president's power under the Act.
- Roadless areas in
National Forests have recently received increased protection
by former President Clinton under his Roadless Area
Conservation Rule. Unfortunately,
the affected commercial industries (logging, mining, and oil and gas)
and the Bush administration are fighting to overturn the new rule.
exchanges occur when public lands are traded for private lands
of equal value. Unfortunately there are several serious
problems with the land
program that result in subsidized environmental degradation and financial
losses to American taxpayers.
- Development of private lands on the outskirts
of, and even inside of, our public lands has resulted in problems
of urban encroachment: habitat
air pollution, traffic congestion, population growth, etc.
Over the years, humans have altered the environment in a number
of ways that have caused changes to biological resources and natural
processes everywhere on the earth, including our public lands. Consequently,
public land agencies are left with the difficult task of managing
unbalanced ecosystems. Current issues are exotic species, fire management,
and wild horses and burros.
- Invasive exotic species (plants and animals)
can be extremely harmful by upsetting the natural balance of
ecosystems and greatly
threatening biodiversity. Unfortunately these exotics are very
difficult and costly to control and are therefore becoming a
very serious problem.
- We have learned that fire is a natural and essential
component of many western ecosystems, yet the Forest Service
implement its traditional strategy
of total fire suppression rather than a more integrated fire
management approach. This extremely costly program negatively impacts ecosystem
health and endangers
the lives of firefighters.
- Laws protecting wild horses and burros have worked
too well- the animals' populations have grown too large. The
resulting management strategies are
very controversial amongst environmentalists, ranching interests,
groups, and others.
Management plans provide a means for land managers to set goals
for, and guide the direction of, the futures of our various public
lands. Unfortunately these plans are not always effective as many
plans are outdated or created with inappropriate intentions. In Yosemite
National Park, for example, the recently completed plans for Yosemite
Valley and the Merced River are seen by many environmental groups
and local communities as a great threat to the park's future, increasing
development and decreasing protection for the park's already stressed
Upon consideration of these public lands issues it appears that
the managing agencies are often failing to uphold their mission statements
and are defeating the purpose for which the public lands were created.
As a result, our public lands are plagued by countless problems that
are threatening their health and survival.
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