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date: 19 April 2024

Public Lands and Their Administrationfree

Public Lands and Their Administrationfree

  • Adam M. SowardsAdam M. SowardsDepartment of History, University of Idaho


For more than a century after the republic’s founding in the 1780s, American law reflected the ideal that the commons—the public domain—should be turned into private property. As Americans became concerned about resource scarcity, waste, and monopolies at the end of the 19th century, reform-minded bureaucrats and scientists convinced Congress to maintain in perpetuity some of the nation’s land as public. This shift offered a measure of protection and an alternative to private property regimes. The federal agencies that primarily manage these lands today—U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—have worked since their origins in the early decades of the 20th century to fulfill their diverse, competing, evolving missions. Meanwhile, the public and Congress have continually demanded new and different goals as the land itself has functioned and responded in interdependent ways. In the mid-20th century, the agencies intensified their management, hoping they could satisfy the rising—and often conflicting—demands American citizens placed on the public lands. This intensification often worsened public lands’ ecology and increased political conflict, resulting in a series of new laws in the 1960s and 1970s. Those laws strengthened the role of science and the public in influencing agency practices while providing more opportunities for litigation. Predictably, since the late 1970s, these developments have polarized public lands’ politics. The economies, but also the identities, of many Americans remain entwined with the public lands, making political standoffs—over endangered species, oil production, privatizing land, and more—common and increasingly intractable. Because the public lands are national in scope but used by local people for all manner of economic and recreational activities, they have been and remain microcosms of the federal democratic system and all its conflicted nature.


  • Environmental History
  • Native American History

The history of American public lands and their administration reveals the complicated ways political ideals and practices, as well as legal structures, intersect with environmental realities. Myriad economic endeavors have occurred on the nation’s public domain, and Americans have debated the purpose and identity of those lands and attempted to define, protect, and contest the public good. Because private interests intersect so closely with public interest on the federal lands, they furnish an ideal vehicle to investigate how American environmental history has unfolded.

Table 1. Overview of Federal Public Lands Agencies, 20151

Agency (Federal Department)

Year Agency Established

Acreage Administered in United States (excludes territories and marine areas)

Forest Service (Agriculture)



National Park Service (Interior)



Fish and Wildlife Service (Interior)



Bureau of Land Management (Interior)



1. Note: Carol Hardy Vincent, Laura A. Hanson, and Carla N. Argueta, “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data,” (n.p.: Congressional Research Service, 2017), 16.

Obtaining and Disposing of the Public Domain

Land has shaped American history from as early as the colonial era. Colonists immigrated to North America in part to find land more affordable than in Europe. Early conflict between European colonists and Native Americans often was rooted both in different understandings of land ownership and material contests over land and associated resources.1 To control colonists, the British Parliament imposed the Proclamation Line of 1763 to prevent migration west across the Appalachian Mountains, a law that generated resentment and helped spark the American Revolution.2 These examples introduce long-standing themes for American environmental history, showing land as a source to advance individuals’ well-being, a wellspring of conflict, and a way for one group to control another.

During the revolutionary era and well after, Americans followed the ideas of philosopher John Locke and placed great faith in land ownership as a force to foster republican values and ensure virtue, liberty, and prosperity for the nation.3 No one represented that faith better than Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”4 By locating virtue in the act of farming, policymakers like Jefferson worked to ensure the nation would have land available for small, yeoman farmers who would ensure a virtuous, stable government.5

Federal control over land began early and endured. In the 1780s, newly independent states ceded their western land claims to the national government, creating the public domain.6 Even before the states ratified the Constitution, the 1785 Land Ordinance developed a plan to dispose of the public domain into private ownership. The law, which Jefferson drafted, standardized land surveys and sales. Surveyors would first create a township of six square miles, divided into thirty-six square-mile sections of 640 acres each. This grid system would be reproduced across the continent without following natural features. Instead, it rationalized space by geometry, not ecology. This allowed all land to be treated the same, a precondition for commodifying it—that is, reducing it to something to be bought and sold.7 The federal government sold the land at a public auction for a dollar per acre. Land sales provided the government one of its only revenue sources, easing its debts and also allowing land speculators an easy route to wealth. However, the law made the federal government, rather than speculative land companies, the largest seller of land in the country, emphasizing the central role the national government played in property relations.8 Although adjustments and additions to the 1785 law came, its basic form and its underlying values survived.

For the next century, the U.S. government used myriad methods to add to its public domain and advance its republican experiment. The nation set out to acquire land from sovereign tribes and other foreign nations. Some territory came through negotiated treaties while others came through wars of conquest. In either circumstance, violence, fraud, and manipulation were not uncommon. By the 1840s, Manifest Destiny—the belief that the Protestant God foreordained that white American men would control the continent—guided state action and exposed the racial and gendered assumptions about the expanding republic.9 From purchasing Louisiana in 1803 to annexing Hawaiʽi ninety-five years later, the nation gained a continent and more, along the way dispossessing Native Americans, Mexicans, Hawaiʽians, and others of their land and disrupting the cultures based on it. Rarely did American law do anything more than marginalize pre-existing populations and diminish their territorial rights. American territorial expansion often came through violence.10 Acquiring the nation’s territory came through political choices and military campaigns, not destiny.

Gaining the public domain represented the first step in the national project; the disposing of it into individual and corporate hands constituted the next one and also reflected specific policy choices. The 1785 land law initiated a process of surveying then auctioning the land through the General Land Office. But many Americans jumped ahead of the surveyors (and treaty-makers) and occupied land illegally. Congress passed various laws, such as the Preemption Act of 1841, to address this reality and offered a route to property rights even if farmers settled on land before it had been offered for sale, a recognition that the federal land administrative apparatus could not contain migrating Americans.11

Figure 1. Map of U.S. federal lands.

Courtesy of National Atlas of the United States, Wikimedia Commons.

Homesteading laws replaced auctions and preemptions beginning in 1862. Passed during the Civil War, the Homestead Act offered 160 acres of the public domain to adult heads of households who were citizens or immigrants who declared their intention to become citizens. The land would be free as long as the homesteader lived on the land for five years and improved it. In the legal sense, improvement meant “actual settlement and cultivation,” but the term was shorthand for a bundle of Jeffersonian ideologies that enshrined free labor and argued that applying reason and labor to the natural environment would ensure success for self and nation, an experience President Abraham Lincoln embodied through his own life.12 The Homestead Act symbolized the nation’s agrarian logic, an idealized economic and social program that would founder on the shoals of a challenging environment.

The West’s environmental differences soon compelled Congress to adjust land laws to continue transmitting the public domain into private hands and to transform the very nature of the landscape. For instance, the Timber Culture Act of 1873 allotted homesteaders another quarter section if they planted forty acres in trees as an effort to afforest the Great Plains. Meanwhile, the Desert Land Act of 1877 tried to rectify the West’s deficiency of rainfall by encouraging irrigation, offering 640 acres if farmers brought water to it. Such adjustments to the public domain system failed to produce the desired effects: only 25 percent and 26 percent of the acreage claimed under the Timber Culture and Desert Land acts, respectively, proved up.13 The ecological, economic, and social challenges belied the ideal vision of the public domain as the repository of national virtue. In other words, nature frustrated political ideals.

Other factors undermined the ways the public domain served the yeomanry imagined by land policy architects. For one, the legislation resulted in widespread fraud. At times, corporations hired dummy entrymen who would sign over their individual claims to the company or resell the land before having earned the title.14 Other corporations also benefited from the public domain when Congress granted large swaths of land to railroad companies to incentivize and finance building routes across the continent. Altogether, these railroad land grants from the federal government topped 131 million acres, an area larger than any state besides Alaska and Texas.15 Finally, land-use practices, especially in logging and ranching, caused widespread ecological havoc. Wasteful logging practices led to preventable forest fires and weakened watershed protection, while overgrazing increased erosion and spread invasive weeds across western rangelands.16 These combined problems—concern over fraud, corporate power, environmental degradation—gave rise to questions about whether the industrial age required new policies for public lands.

Many characterize 19th-century political economy as laissez-faire, where the government left the economy alone. Rather than acting in a hands-off way, though, the government adopted policies that were essential preconditions for economic growth rooted in exploiting resources. Deploying law to make land accessible with few hindrances freed up Americans’ creative energies and promoted economic development—a main goal and function of government.17 Despite the generosity of such laws throughout the 19th century, millions of acres remained outside private hands. Also, as the century neared its end, new ideas and policies began to emerge. Reformers within government (e.g., John Wesley Powell, Bernhard Fernow) and writers, artists, and other intellectuals (e.g., Thomas Moran, John Muir) among the public called for a stronger federal presence to protect the public domain from further depredations and to accept a permanent system of public lands.18

Creating New Missions for Public Lands

Yellowstone became the world’s first national park when Congress established it in 1872. The year before, the government-sponsored Hayden Survey explored the area and spread the alarm that individuals or a railroad would soon claim and develop Yellowstone with its features so wondrous that the contemporary press hesitated to accept descriptions. Reports, photographs, and paintings of awe-inspiring geysers and canyons prompted Congress to put 2.2 million acres beyond the reach of private exploitation, believing that such an unusual landscape should remain open to all.19 The law explained that the lands were “hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; . . . [R]egulations shall provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition.”20 These passages announced something new in American land policy: dedicating some of the public domain to remain permanently public and retain its natural condition.

The first national park legislation represented a pivot in public land history, and soon a full-fledged conservation movement existed that advocated for and implemented related novel policies. Congress did not proceed with perfect logic. It authorized national parks and forest reserves (later renamed national forests) before creating the institutions to manage them or authorizing enabling legislation to guide their administration. Consequently, despite the revolutionary policy change that allowed some public domain to remain under federal control, incremental adjustments characterized the few decades surrounding 1900.

In 1891, nineteen years after creating Yellowstone National Park, Congress passed the General Revision Act meant to curb fraud in various land laws, but its real importance lay in a short section, sometimes known independently as the Forest Reserve Act. This new law empowered the president to withdraw forests from the public domain. A growing number of commissions and reports from foresters, scientists, and policymakers beginning in the 1870s expressed concern about failures in American forestry. Fears about a timber famine and worries about water supply for growing urban areas and western irrigation projects helped mobilize political interest. Despite the authorizing power, this legislation neglected to specify how and for what these reserves would be managed, leading to stuttering development of the federal forestry corps. That did not stop presidents from acting. President Benjamin Harrison established the first reserve—Yellowstone Forest Reserve—less than a month into the law’s life; by the end of 1892, fifteen reserves of thirteen million total acres existed.

Congress continued creating national parks, and presidents kept setting aside forest reserves. Soon, two other types of protected federal land were added to the mix when President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 created the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge (initially identified as a federal bird reservation); three years later he designated Devils Tower National Monument. Congress had authorized this latter action by passing the Antiquities Act (1906), which allowed presidents to create national monuments to preserve “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States.”21 Although these four categories—national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and monuments—now existed, Congress neglected to define their management authorities or priorities in broad terms or precise ways. Without guidance, economic values and existing practices often prevailed.

Because of their greater economic potential, forest reserves received attention from Congress first. The 1897 Forest Management Act (also known as the Organic Act or the Pettigrew Amendment) provided general direction for federal forest managers lasting almost seven decades. According to the law, the purpose of forest reserves was “to improve and protect the forest within the reservation, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities for citizens.”22 In 1905, Congress transferred the forest reserves—then up to sixty-three million acres—into the Department of Agriculture and placed them under the supervision of Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot in the newly named U.S. Forest Service (USFS). In 1907, the reserves—then reaching 150 million acres—were renamed national forests. Embedded in these administrative and name changes were philosophical clarifications: trees were a crop to be used for the nation’s good. The instructions given to Pinchot by the secretary of agriculture (although Pinchot wrote them himself) stated, “all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people, and not for the temporary benefit of individuals or companies . . . You will see to it that the water, wood, and forage of the reserves are conserved and wisely used for the benefit of the home builder first of all, upon whom depends the best permanent use of lands and resources alike.”23 Such priorities made clear that national forests retained some of Jefferson’s spirit in the anti-monopolistic concern for smallholders and an emphasis on long-term management, at least in principle.

Although national parks and monuments often encompassed watersheds and forests, they were not preserved primarily for those economic values. Instead, these sites focused on protecting heritage central to promoting a sense of American nationalism. They contained some of the most iconic places on the continent for nature (e.g., the Grand Canyon) or culture (e.g., Mesa Verde), and preserving them celebrated a particular nationalism that enshrined the American landscape as essential to national identity. For a nation in the aftermath of civil war and racial violence in the South and West, preserving landscapes seemed to offer a potential healing salve.24

However, such a hopeful vision rested on myths and paradoxes. Indigenous people lived in and used places like Glacier or Yosemite or Yellowstone National Parks, and park creation often dispossessed tribes of land and access to resources critical for subsistence and culture, access that in many instances had been assured by treaties. The national parks were not so much empty lands containing only wildlife and wilderness, but lands emptied and stripped of their human communities.25 In this sense, national parks continued the long-standing policy of removing Native peoples from their lands, although this was neither the parks’ primary purpose nor was dispossession from parks the greatest episodes of Indian removal in American history. The National Park Service (NPS) created and depicted parks as unpeopled wilderness for the first time in millennia. Furthermore, the NPS’s Organic Act defined the system in paradoxical terms. Congress codified this tension by directing the agency to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”26 The debate over how to both enjoy landscapes and keep them unimpaired largely defined subsequent national park history.

By the second decade of the 20th century, the public lands system had taken basic modern form: government bureaucracies exercising administrative responsibilities over designated lands. Yet, enabling legislation with congressionally mandated missions faced real limitations. Implementing these ideals on the ground with an autonomous nature and recalcitrant human communities proved harder than imagined in a Washington, D.C., conference room. In many cases, early controversies imprinted both the agencies and their constituencies.

For example, grazing on public lands generated a number of controversies. Livestock ranged all over the West’s public domain in numbers that often overwhelmed grass’s ability to regenerate. Also, ranchers came to rely on the public range and view it as theirs. So, ranchers balked when the Forest Service first imposed a grazing fee in 1906 and asserted its prerogative to regulate other things such as herd size. They challenged the agency’s power to regulate the range, a challenge they lost in two 1911 Supreme Court opinions stemming from grazing trespasses in California with sheep (U.S. v. Grimaud) and in Colorado with cattle (U.S. v. Light). Ranchers who relied on public lands were utterly dependent on the federal government, and so they lived with a sense of heightened unease, distrust, and outright hostility whenever the USFS imposed new grazing regulations or raised fees as it did in the 1920s in its efforts to meet market value and fund range rehabilitation efforts.27

In this era, federal agencies found other ways to extend their influence in new places and through new methods. For instance, Congress passed the Weeks Act in 1911 that authorized for the first time the purchase of lands in the East at the headwaters of streams. These lands—mostly cutover, abandoned, and often tax-delinquent forests—would be reforested and provide watershed protection. Within a decade, two million acres had been added to the national forest system; within fifty years, almost twenty million were added. These additions nationalized the system. In effect, it created a second type of national forests—one carved out of the public domain and one purchased from private owners—and helped make the Forest Service truly a national agency, rather than one with only western interests. The Weeks Act also authorized funds to states with federally approved fire protection plans and allowed the Forest Service to build cooperative arrangements for firefighting. These rule changes invested national, state, and even private forestry with a mutual mission to cooperate to stop forest fires and helped standardize protection. The 1924 Clarke-McNary Act extended the functions of the Weeks Act, showing the continued recognition that forests existed within larger landscapes and jurisdictions that depended on cooperating agencies.28

The National Park Service also expanded to the East. Prior to the 1930s, park efforts there were scattered. With few public lands, creating a national park in most cases required purchasing land from private owners. Targeting Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks, local boosters and wealthy philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller Jr. raised money and gave the land to the national government in 1934 and 1935, buying out (and shoving aside) local residents. These parks joined the Everglades as the first three southern national parks.29 The Everglades National Park also offered a new park model, one influenced by ecology more than simply scenic grandeur. The Everglades, barely eight feet above sea level, could hardly match the West’s Grand Tetons or the Grand Canyon for monumental views, but its primitive nature and abundant wildlife offered something special. The “river of grass,” as its tireless advocate Marjory Stoneman Douglas characterized it, helped solidify the notion that parks were for environmental protection and not just scenery.30

This growth of national forests and parks did not necessarily mean linear progress toward an improved set of environmental protections through all of America’s public lands. Pinchot’s famous utilitarian phrasing of “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time” held up a great promise. But short-term exploitation for narrow interest groups often seemed more common as public land agencies moved into the mid-20th century and intensified their efforts to produce more from the nation’s land.

Intensifying Management

American appetites for the environment and its products grew. Demands increased for natural resources and personal experiences from the federal lands. Managers and advocates worked together—and occasionally against each other—with faith that they could meet the demands of the public through proper management for both use and preservation. Never had so much been asked of the public lands, and so public land agencies intensified their management, believing that their expertise could yield ever more from these places.

The American consumer culture that emerged in the 1920s propelled the wilderness movement, which fundamentally changed public lands management across various designations. The growing middle class, with more leisure time and widespread automobile ownership, sent many Americans on the road. Soon, automobiles penetrated remote mountains and valleys, threatening nature’s serenity. National parks deliberately promoted automobile tourism, hiring advertising specialist Robert Sterling Yard to promote the parks. The first National Park Service (NPS) director, Stephen T. Mather, envisioned a so-called Grand Tour that circled the West’s parks, hitting national monuments along the way. However, by the 1930s, ridgetop roadways like Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park attracted opposition. Besides those associated with the NPS—like Yard, who had a change of heart and came to prefer primitive parks—Forest Service employees like Aldo Leopold and Robert Marshall saw roads ruining the important heritage wild places represented. These men and a handful of others formed the Wilderness Society in 1935, united in their belief that automobiles and the consumer culture they represented needed to be kept at bay.31

Federal agencies responded to the ideas the Wilderness Society founders shared. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) established U-Regulations in 1939 to designate wild areas and guide foresters in managing them for primitive recreational values, which primarily meant no road building or timber cutting.32 Meanwhile, the NPS developed some parks, like Olympic, as wilderness parks with minimal intrusions by roads.33 After World War II, more and more Americans valued parks and forests for these wilderness characteristics, a point made clear when the Bureau of Reclamation proposed building a dam in Dinosaur National Monument near the Utah-Colorado border. Conservationists grew alarmed at what they saw as an invasion of the park system, which they framed as sacred space. Fearing this would be only the first of many sacrifices, they mounted a national campaign throughout the early 1950s that generated enough political support that Congress stopped the plan in 1956. This effort demonstrated the growing love affair Americans had with wilderness by the mid-20th century and the power activists could marshal for these causes.34

Although defeating the dam planned for within the national park system showed the wilderness side of recreation, developments to cater to automobile tourism remained strong and also shaped the public lands system. In 1955, NPS director Conrad Wirth announced a decade-long program to improve the parks. Improvement in this context meant development. Wirth hoped to build (or rebuild) roads, visitor centers, campgrounds, housing, and more. Known as Mission 66 and finished for the NPS’s fiftieth anniversary, the program cost $1 billion but generated impressive statistics: 1,570 miles of improved roads, 1,197 miles of new roads, 936 miles of new or improved trails, 1,502 parking areas, 575 new campgrounds, 221 new administrative buildings, 114 visitor centers, and much more. All of this helped accommodate the 133 million tourists who visited national parks in the year of the system’s golden jubilee, up from 46 million visitors the year before Mission 66 began.35 Intensive management for tourists altered the parks’ landscape and attracted critics, such as environmental writer and erstwhile park employee Edward Abbey, who questioned in his inimitable way why the NPS wished to accommodate “the indolent millions born on wheels and suckled on gasoline, who expect and demand paved highways to lead them in comfort, ease and safety into every nook and corner of the national parks.” Abbey dubbed such development “industrial tourism.”36

Table 2. Selected National Parks Recreation Visits, by Decade2

Park Name (year data begins)

Yellowstone* (1904)

Yosemite (1906)

Glacier (1911)

Grand Canyon (1919)

Great Smoky Mountains (1931)









































































* Note: Date indicates the year in which the data begins

2. Data derived from National Park Service, “NPS Stats, National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics.”

While consuming scenery and wilderness brought new management elements to national parks, monuments, and forests, producing watershed, timber, and range values focused the Forest Service and, later, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on more intensified management schemes.

Among their highest purposes, national forests protected watersheds. In fact, many western national forests, such as Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, were dedicated at the same time as federal irrigation projects, such as the Salt River Project for Phoenix, demonstrating the close connection between upstream forested watersheds and downstream valley farming.37 This pattern reproduced itself in Colorado’s Front Range, California’s Sierra Nevadas, and elsewhere in the West.38 Similarly, the Weeks Act enabled the federal government to acquire private cutover lands in the East to create national forests, stipulating that such lands be headwaters of navigable streams.39 Besides simply reserving such lands, federal managers sought to manage them for particular outcomes, which required more active management.

Forest fires loomed as the direst threat to all economic forest values. Although some land managers saw a role for human-set fires in certain forests to keep forests thinned or to promote certain fire-dependent species, most foresters by the 20th century saw them as inherently wasteful. Fires, of course, destroyed trees and thus timber, and their aftermath exposed soil, hastening erosion and worsening floods. In 1910 in the northern Rockies, a complex of fires burned three million acres of national forests in Idaho and Montana and shaped the Forest Service for generations. Several future chief foresters directly experienced the so-called Big Blowup, and the agency subsequently made fire protection a top goal. By the 1930s, the USFS articulated it as the “10:00 a.m. policy.” The aim was for every fire to be extinguished by 10:00 a.m. the following day—or the next, until it was put out. Controlling fire symbolized the agency’s approach, born of the progressive-era’s faith in expertise, that managers might study and manipulate forests in ways that yielded the resources society desired when it desired them.40

In other words, the Forest Service practiced intensive management over its vast holdings. Although it worked to protect forests from its beginning, the agency’s role in its first three decades was largely custodial. By the 1930s and especially the 1940s, however, the USFS intensified its efforts to not protect but to produce timber to support and stabilize local communities’ economies, long a component of Forest Service philosophy. Overproduction and poor logging practices plagued American forestry, and the Great Depression highlighted these problems as millions of cutover and abandoned acres, especially in the East, joined the national forest system through purchase. Forest Service leadership seized this moment to advocate for broader reform, as did some unions such as the International Woodworkers of America, when they looked for ways to regulate private forestry but eventually settled for cooperating with timber companies. One telling detail about forestry’s changes was the redefinition of sustained yield. Traditionally, the term meant that the harvest would not exceed the growth in forests, ensuring that over time there would always be timber. In this era, however, foresters redefined sustained yield to mean “continuous production of lumber rather than forests,” as historian Harold K. Steen explained.41 This shift symbolized an important reorientation for the USFS.

The Forest Service moved into the post–World War II era intent on meeting the growing national need for timber by intensifying management to maximize tree production. By the 1950s, the overriding goal was to “get out the cut.” Private forest lands could no longer meet the growing demand for wood products, so national forests filled in the gap. Timber harvests on national forests increased dramatically. In 1940, more than 1.7 billion board feet was harvested from the national forests—the highest year before World War II. By 1950, the number reached 3.5 billion board feet and kept growing; between 1964 and 1974, no year saw less than 10 billion board feet taken out of national forests.42 This astounding growth kept mills going but often transformed ecosystems with large clear-cuts and hastily built roads creating massive landslides or wrecking streams and other wildlife habitats. The agency adopted what historian Paul W. Hirt characterized as a “conspiracy of optimism,” a managerial ethos that reflected a faith that maximizing production through technological control could continue high harvest levels despite emerging evidence of their environmental costs.43

In many ways, the national forests reflect a straightforward history. In comparison, wildlife refuges have a long, complicated history in large part because they mean to contain and protect nature that is inherently mobile. By the 20th century, the rapid decline of bison and the extinction of the passenger pigeon alerted Americans to the danger of overhunting, while women’s fashion—namely, feathery hats—threatened many bird species. Elite hunters organized the Boone and Crockett Club to conserve favored wildlife species while elite women worked politically to stop the plume trade. Early refuges, like Key West National Wildlife Refuge and National Bison Range (both formed in 1908), provided places where wildlife might be sheltered from hunting so that populations might increase.44

However, habitat destruction caused greater problems. Along the Pacific Flyway, draining wetlands for farms weakened the ecological links necessary for ducks and geese to overwinter in the West’s critical habitat. A third or more of the region’s wetlands had been drained by the 1930s, and bird populations reached a nadir. Ducks, however, enjoyed a powerful constituency: hunters. Others also helped promote the idea of refuges, such as William L. Finley, an ornithologist and photographer working for the National Association of Audubon Societies in Oregon who helped generate enthusiasm for refuges in the Malheur and Klamath basins, the most threatened sites on the flyway. Advocates who wanted waterfowl to shoot with rifles or cameras built up the wildlife refuge system, first administered by the Bureau of Biological Survey, and after 1940 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1934, the so-called Duck Stamp Act allowed hunters to buy stamps that funded the purchase and improvement of wildlife refuges, a program ably implemented by the Biological Survey’s director, Jay “Ding” Darling. In some cases, the federal government acquired failed farms, similar to the USFS’s acquisition of eastern cutover lands.45

But this work of creating or restoring refuges and their waterfowl populations faced difficulties. Refuges existed within a network of public and private lands, and migratory waterfowl respected no jurisdictional lines. In the 1940s and 1950s, the USFWS hired pilots to “herd” waterfowl that set down in nearby private fields and get them onto public lands. Management required extensive interventions in the natural world, typically depending on the same massive engineering infrastructure as neighboring irrigated farms. The agency planted rice, for instance, to attract waterfowl to the refuges. This strategy followed from the consensus at the time: the purpose of refuges was to manage more ducks for hunters. Ironically then, the refuges became a public hunting ground, attracting the growing hunter population after World War II. More ducks was the single measure of refuge success, but other species did not necessarily benefit from the system. Accordingly, this practice reflected the larger intensification of public land management in this era and included some of the same myopic results that viewed ecosystem health through narrow definitions of increased productivity.46

Meanwhile, two developments in the mid-century illustrate the ways public lands grazing entered new phases of intensified management: the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and the establishment of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1946. Both actions grew out of uncertainty and crisis. Millions of acres of the public domain remained unclaimed more than seventy years after the Homestead Act, evidence that the 19th-century ideal process of privatizing the public domain failed in some places, especially arid rangelands. At the same time, the drought of the 1930s that famously created the Dust Bowl on the Great Plains wreaked havoc on western rangelands and the livestock industry. Conflict and confusion over managing the public range finally yielded some clarifying legislation.

Reformers hoped to adjust public domain ranching practices. Ranchers’ operations were insecure because they did not hold rights to the land; at the same time, government managers worried about declining range quality. The Forest Service prepared a report, begun in the early 1930s and released in 1936, that claimed that forage on the western rangelands had been depleted by about half, with the public domain ranges declining by two-thirds. The USFS used The Western Range as a political tool in its pitch to wrest the lands from Department of Interior control, but the general trend it identified spoke to a significantly depleted resource.47 Just before The Western Range appeared, Congress finally acted on these problems in the form of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The law provided federal oversight on millions of acres by the new U.S. Grazing Service, helped rehabilitate range conditions, authorized ten-year permits, and collected grazing fees. Local ranchers constituted grazing districts that exercised great influence in administering this new system, establishing rules and access for ranges. In return, they gained security for their operations, because their customary ranges were allowed and their grazing permits were recognized as collateral for loans—an important recognition of property relations hat heretofore had been undefined and always at risk. The legislation also effectively ended homesteading on the public domain.48

The other mid-century shift came when President Harry S. Truman created the BLM by combining the General Land Office and the U.S. Grazing Service, both agencies within the Department of the Interior. The move gave the BLM responsibility for more than 520 million acres of land in the West and Alaska, along with managing the nation’s subsurface mineral estate of even greater acreage.49 Yet, the administrative change did not come with a clear mandate or mission. As leading authorities Samuel Dana and Sally Fairfax once put it, “the bureau had no coherent mission, no authority, and no statutorily defined existence. It was rather like the lands it managed, a residual category, assigned to administer the loose ends of over 3500 statutes randomly enacted over the previous 150 years.”50 From this inauspicious beginning, the BLM struggled to figure out how to manage its vast holdings and interact with its main constituents.

The BLM’s land helped support numerous ranchers throughout the American West, as well as diverse mining enterprises, so much so that the agency earned from critics the moniker Bureau of Livestock and Minerals. From the 1940s through the 1960s, the politics of these public lands represented a classic version of what political scientists call an “iron triangle” of policymaking and governance: Congress (especially through its committees), an executive branch bureaucracy (the BLM), and an interest group (livestock producers). Iron triangles are known for assisting interest groups, often in a less than open fashion. Grazing advisory boards were central to the management system of BLM lands; they were composed of local ranchers empowered to issue permits and set stocking levels. These boards enjoyed near-autonomy, and decisions they made supported their economic interests with few ways for reform or other values (e.g., ecological) to interfere. This situation meant livestock interests reigned supreme.51

However, even this light touch sparked resistance, a resistance directed at the BLM as the governing body. In the mid-1940s, some ranchers and their political advocates floated the idea that the BLM lands ought to be privatized or at least given to states. The movement in the 1940s found a staunch opponent in Harper’s columnist and western historian Bernard DeVoto, who wrote scathing articles in the national press highlighting the heretofore hushed efforts at the “land grab.” DeVoto’s prose roused conservationists to successfully oppose these plans, but the movement for state control or privatization continued long after this moment.52

After spending three to four decades increasing their management presence on the land through Mission 66 park promotions, “getting out the cut” timber management, herding ducks, or enclosing the public domain, the public lands agencies were poised for significant changes as the 1960s and 1970s approached. Although they tried to accommodate multiple users in the mid-century, the demands only increased. Government bureaucrats and scientists soon inherited new legislative directives and worked to accommodate the growing demands of public lands users for traditional commodity and recreational purposes. The landscape, however, could only satisfy so many competing demands before straining to a breaking point.

Legislating the Environment

The public land system in the 1950s faced a series of pressures caused by intensifying use. On one end of the spectrum, extractive users pushed to increase their access and control over these lands. On the other end, wilderness advocates pushed the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to preserve rather than develop their holdings in remote areas. Meanwhile, all of the agencies upped their active management of resources, whether that meant accelerating efforts to produce timber, raise beef, satisfy tourists, or increase ducks. By the 1960s, Congress had stepped in numerous times ostensibly to provide management guidance, although its efforts often codified a system under strain. Nevertheless, those laws intervened on the public lands and helped managers pivot agencies onto new tracks. By the 1970s, after more than a decade of lawmaking, a new set of management regimes were developing or in place with greater federal authority, stronger enforcement, better science, and improved public input.

The 1960s started off with a notable law that applied only to the Forest Service but bespoke of broader concerns for balancing competing uses across public lands management. The Forest Service wanted the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 (MUSY) to strengthen its administrative position. At the time, industry pressed for higher yields while environmental activists demanded greater protections for non-economic values. The agency asserted its prerogatives by getting Congress to pass MUSY. The law identified five purposes of national forests lands: recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish. For the first time, recreation—and, by implication, wilderness—received statutory authority for the agency. Each use was to be equal in guiding management decisions, and USFS administrators would seek to balance each in forest planning. (In 1964, the Bureau of Land Management received its own confirmation of multiple use with the Classification and Multiple Use Act, which highlighted recreation and wilderness for the first time on BLM lands.53) Once on the books, MUSY did little to change management priorities, however; timber still dominated and maximization remained the order of the day. The Forest Service hoped this updated mission directive would preserve its independence, but more legislation followed that seemed to undercut it through new congressional mandates.54

The Wilderness Act followed in 1964, one of the most far-reaching laws that affects the public lands. The law, drafted by Wilderness Society executive director Howard Zahniser, stated that,

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.55

The law prohibited roads, commercial activity, and motors or mechanical transportation. Designated by an act of Congress, a wilderness area offered the most restrictive land uses anywhere. The law immediately turned 9.1 million acres of USFS primitive areas into wilderness and established a process for additional lands, today including nearly 110 million acres across all four public lands agencies. Nearly every Congress since 1964 has added to the system, a trend that suggests its widespread popularity. Another key element to the system is that any change requires a public hearing, a step that opened public land management to democratic input. This seemed particularly appropriate since the Wilderness Act evolved from citizen activism primarily, not impulses from within government. In 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act added to the National Wilderness Preservation system to be managed by the public land agency through which the waters flowed.56

Even more powerful for citizen input was the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that went into effect on January 1, 1970. NEPA drew from much broader concerns than the public lands. This far-reaching legislation, among other things, required any project with federal funding to account for potential environmental effects. The public would scrutinize the resulting environmental impact statements and offer comments before agencies decided on actions. Since the public lands were federal lands, all projects fell under NEPA’s aegis, and public scrutiny of forest, park, and refuge planning increased litigation that reflected an active citizenry that deployed scientific data to urge options with the least deleterious effects on the environment. NEPA opened resource planning processes and so provided new avenues for litigation. This change added a side to the iron triangle: the courts. Also, by this time traditional commodity special interest groups were joined by environmental groups as a counterweight in the iron triangle system.57

If NEPA announced a new legal paradigm, the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) legislated new ethical obligations. Congress passed the ESA to ensure species would not become extinct. In some ways, the impulse for the ESA resembled the perspective articulated a decade earlier for the NPS in the so-called Leopold Report, after the committee’s chair A. Starker Leopold. The report about NPS wildlife management policies declared, “As a primary goal, we would recommend that the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.”58 The ESA, a decade later, provided a strong mechanism to pursue that recommendation, and the federal lands furnished the easiest places to implement it. The law promised both assessment and management. That is, the appropriate government agency—either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) or National Marine Fisheries Service—would determine if a species was endangered or threatened to become so and then establish a plan to protect the species, which effectively meant habitat preservation or rehabilitation. Consequently, the Leopold Report and the ESA pushed national parks and other public lands toward ecological restoration as an important policy goal, management tool, and legal requirement. Because of their comparative lack of industrial development, the public lands provided habitat for many species in crisis and became the critical place for species recovery, even though ecologists think most protected areas are still insufficient for real species recovery. Beyond just its policy intent, though, the law was radical in recognizing that species became extinct as “a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.”59 Questioning economic growth to preserve species of animals and plants established new ethical obligations and predictably led to further controversy.

In 1976, Congress passed two landmark laws that capped off more than a decade of public land legislative reforms. The National Forest Management Act (NMFA) responded to public relations and legal fiascos in the 1970s when massive clear-cuts in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest and Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains roused the public and Congress to action. Lawsuits from environmental advocates succeeded in halting the USFS’s worst clear-cutting practices and generated negative publicity. The NFMA amounted to a new organic act for the agency in its redefinition of practices. It required integrated planning at the individual national forest level every decade or fifteen years that required more scientific and public input in the process. The law adopted new guidelines to limit clear-cuts. A new definition for sustained-yield forestry, called non-declining even flow, promised to reshape practices to ensure that no more timber could be harvested annually than could be sustained in perpetuity. However, exceptions for salvage logging created, in Paul W. Hirt’s words, “loopholes large enough to drive logging trucks through.”60 Despite these loopholes, the NMFA, much like the rest of the legislation in this environmental era, slowed the maximum production so central to mid-century public lands history.

Figure 2. Timber harvested on National Forest land. Note: A fiscal year adjustment in 1976 is what caused the sharp dip in data.

Last, the BLM belatedly received its Organic Act with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). The BLM functioned for several decades without a clear mandate from Congress, guided by too many statutes that provided mixed messages. The FLPMA ratified some existing BLM practices (e.g., multiple use) and directed the bureau to expand its activities (e.g., wilderness). The FLPMA gave the agency greater regulatory oversight for grazers and mining corporations. One significant shift came when the grazing advisory boards were weakened and effectively replaced with multiple-use advisory councils (now called resource advisory councils). The new groups were opened to all interested parties, not just those with a direct economic stake in BLM lands. This meant local commodity voices no longer dominated planning and policy development, and wildlife advocates and other non-extractive users enjoyed influence for the first time. This shift disrupted power balances, with locals feeling their customary lands had been subordinated for national priorities at odds with their own needs. Finally, the FLPMA declared explicitly that the federal government would retain ownership of the public lands, seemingly settling the question about whether these lands would ever devolve to the states or be sold to private owners. In all, the FLPMA implemented practices that broadened the BLM’s goals and authority.61

Cumulatively, these laws encompassed the nation and culminated almost a century of federal oversight. They adjusted agency missions and provided guidance that crossed all of the public land bureaus. Together, the laws increased the role of science and citizen input—important for purposes of management and democracy. However, this legislation upset traditions, sparked controversies, and increased litigation, leading to continual conflict in recent decades.

Contesting the Public Lands

The last three decades have been the story of the consequences of these laws and management practices unfolding across the American natural and political landscape. The simplest way to describe the recent history of the public lands is contentious. Explaining why is more difficult. Because environmental laws became more stringent in favor of environmental protection after the 1960s, those whose work and livelihoods were changed or restricted by them found the new rules intrusive, threatening, and wrong-headed. However, environmentalists and scientists sometimes found the new laws weak or ineffective in solving the severe ecological problems many public lands faced. Public land management has become deeply challenging, a recipe for stalemates and frustrations consistent with the wider political polarization that shaped the era. Nonetheless, some observers note that the environmental laws put in place in the 1960s and 1970s have created a “green drift” that has allowed movement toward more protection, despite the gridlock in Congress.62

Alaska amplifies many of the recent trends in public lands.63 When the United States acquired Alaska in 1867, it ignored Indigenous claims to the land. This situation remained unsettled when statehood finally came in 1959 and was finally addressed in 1971 with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). The law allowed Alaska Natives to select forty-four million acres and assured them of subsistence rights on federal land, an allowance that made Alaska’s wilderness and park areas unique and an acknowledgment that “wilderness” had long supported peoples’ subsistence needs.64 ANCSA also authorized the secretary of the interior to withdraw lands from development for conservation purposes and to ensure its management focused on the public interest. Throughout the 1970s, a local and national campaign proceeded with high stakes for public land management, because, as conservationists put it, “Alaska was the last chance to do it right the first time.”65

One new characteristic of this Alaskan campaign was that to a greater extent than conservation efforts earlier and elsewhere, advocates emphasized science, noting in particular that an opportunity existed to protect entire ecosystems intact. Environmentalists pursued this ambitious goal through the Alaska Coalition, a collection of conservation groups that sought in one proposal wilderness designation for 145 million acres. Over the course of the 1970s, opponents from state government, industry, and inholders spoke out and forced compromises. When the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) passed in 1980, wilderness acreage had shrunk from the largest proposals, but the law remade the public lands of Alaska and the nation by adding 43.6 million acres for National Park Service (NPS) administration, 53.7 million acres for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) administration, and 3.4 million acres for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Total wilderness topped 56.6 million acres across the various federal agencies in Alaska. However, these stark numbers—which represented the single greatest moment of wilderness preservation in world history—masked some compromises made to accommodate opponents whose political power grew through the 1970s. For example, the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, first designated in 1960, expanded, but the coastal plain was not preserved as wilderness. Despite it being the most ecologically sensitive area, the plain contains oil, and its development has remained politically contentious ever since. Meanwhile, the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska represented another set of compromises. The Forest Service entered into long-term contracts with local mills—just shy of half a billion board feet annually—that prompted massive clear-cuts. Reforms in the 1990s tried to rein in the Tongass, but the size of its timber operation remains controversial. Finally, hunting and access, including motorized access, for inholders in parks and wilderness have provided alternatives to general policies elsewhere. As with so much, Alaska was exceptional—bigger and different—and it helped highlight how American public land policies were coming out of the environmental era and moving into our recent moment of conservation crisis.66

Figure 3. Growth of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Note: The sharp increase reflects the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservations Act.

Data from Wilderness Statistics Reports, report “Acreage Legislated by Year.”

The Great Basin offers a counterpoint to Alaska. Although ecologically distinct from Alaska, the preponderance of federal lands and influence made the two regions similar. Alaskans worried about losing access to oil, game, and timber if too-strict regulations came from federal land agencies. In the Great Basin, ranchers bristled at the new management paradigm contained in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that, they believed, marginalized them. To protest, they launched what came to be known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. The Nevada legislature announced the protest movement that inaugurated this final phase of public lands history when, in 1979, it passed Assembly Bill 413. The law claimed state control over all Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in Nevada—some forty-eight million acres—in defiance of federal law and tested constitutional principles. Nevada’s case was especially stark: BLM land covered nearly 80 percent of the state. But other western states with smaller percentages of public lands joined in sympathy to express their frustration at what seemed to them the increasing burden of federal environmental laws. No longer could ranchers, miners, or loggers count on the ability to exploit public resources as they had grown accustomed to doing. After a century of laws privileging their access, those who relied on extracting natural resources from public lands felt they had lost their place in the West, and, with their identity threatened, were unable to reliably plan for the future because of new laws or regulations. As much as access was an issue, many westerners were equally angered by what they perceived as arrogant federal officials from the outside telling them what to do. The anger was palpable and contagious.67

Sagebrush rebels articulated several strategies to rectify their grievances. Nevada’s strategy of state control was replicated in several states. The transfer of federal title to states had been proposed by President Herbert Hoover during his presidency (1929–1933), and livestock interests and others had periodically called for it the decades since. Outright privatization also emerged as a popular option. However, privatization was never a central plank for Sagebrush Rebellion partisans but was used by others, such as libertarians, to pursue consonant agendas of weakening federal power. Only those with significant financial resources could afford to buy public lands. After all, the longtime argument by public land ranchers against increasing grazing fees has been that the financial burden would ruin their ranch operations.68

However, in many ways, the Sagebrush Rebellion’s solutions were less important than its grievances and its very existence. The basic public land problems that the Sagebrush Rebellion highlighted were the ascendance of environmental values above multiple use within the conservation framework and the rising power of federal officials in implementing these laws. Those who depended on public resources—logs to fill mills, rangelands to feed cattle—for their livelihood worried about their futures. Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan empathized and declared himself a rebel. When elected, he appointed a staunch anti-environmental lawyer, James Watt, to head the Interior Department, a move that generated strong opposition by environmental groups. Although the Reagan administration certainly stalled the environmental era’s policies, it generated a strong backlash, with national environmental organizations reporting huge gains in membership. Watt’s controversial tenure in Interior—and his political tone-deafness—quickly ended by 1983. The Sagebrush Rebellion sputtered to a close soon thereafter, yet its grievances continued.69

By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the so-called Wise Use movement coalesced from the remnants of the Sagebrush Rebellion with a stronger input from well-financed industry groups. Global economic restructuring put many resource industries at a competitive disadvantage and increased unemployment. At the same time, environmentalists raised concerns about the economics of logging and grazing, showing, for instance, how in some regions nearly no timber sales made money, which created large deficits—and accounted nothing for losses of water quality or biodiversity. These below-cost timber sales and subsidized grazing fees proved difficult to dismiss since critics of conservation so often cited economic arguments in favor of development. Rather than responding to global economic shifts or answering the economic questions, Wise Use grassroots organizers targeted environmentalists and the federal government that implemented the new array of legislation. This strategy of targeting environmentalist and federal agencies brought many rural westerners into the fold. The Wise Use movement mobilized against public land reforms, including limits on logging on the West Coast, higher grazing fees in the interior West, or endangered species protection anywhere. They argued that “wise use” was true conservation, and they tied their political opposition to the rising New Right with its putative emphasis on free-market constitutionalism. Wise Use partisans organized well and shaped their rhetoric toward local communities, disguising their corporate connections; that is, the movement appeared to grow from the grassroots and not be another special interest group. They adopted the rhetoric of rights, especially property rights, which they perceived as deeply compromised by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Wilderness Act, and similar laws.70

Endangered species in many ways have become the major flashpoint for contemporary public lands controversies. Drawing on ideas introduced by the Leopold Report and legal requirements of the ESA, the USFWS cooperated with the NPS to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, a perfect symbol of this moment and all its controversies. Americans learned to hate wolves early and nurtured that animosity through the centuries. Wolves for centuries had been pictured as a unique problem standing in the way of progress and civilization; to deliberately introduce them and protect them struck many as especially wrong-headed. Sometime in the mid-20th century, certain environmental thinkers—most notably Aldo Leopold, who experienced a conversion after killing a wolf in the American Southwest—came to see wolves and other predators as worthy of respect and necessary for ecosystems to function in healthy ways. Environmentalists’ change of heart, however, could not overcome the cultural inheritance of anti-wolf feelings and the economic threat they represented for western ranchers. Soon, other reintroductions in the Rocky Mountain West and natural increase helped to repopulate wolves on the public lands where they had been absent for decades. As with other trends that led to the Sagebrush Rebellion and Wise Use movements, wolf reintroduction seemed to be an example of the federal government deliberately thumbing its nose at westerners’ needs and desires. In recent decades, other animals declared endangered or threatened—such as the northern spotted owl, the desert tortoise, and the Pacific salmon—also disrupted public land management and left various communities with heartache.71

Wolves crossed public land boundaries and jurisdictions in what environmentalists called the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), a development that showed the shortcomings of traditional single-agency management. Reintroduction became a de facto ecosystem management plan involving multiple agencies and private landowners scattered throughout the GYE. Ecosystem management was a new approach formally adopted in the 1990s among all federal land agencies, and its practitioners believed it could solve intractable scientific and political problems. In the postwar years, ecologists determined that ecosystems were prone to dynamism and complexity, just as public administration scholars recognized that governance depended on democratic input and collaboration. Earlier management promised control—of nature and the process—by experts, an approach that failed ecologically and alienated the public. The new approach would manage ecosystems to ensure they would be resilient and maintain their function, while collaborating with local populations to ensure public input and use of resources. This shift might lessen westerners’ sense of alienation. Ecosystem management promised no conflict between preservation and use; the land and all parties would benefit, so went the theory.72

Ecosystem management promised something for everyone. Environmentalists focused on ecosystem management, while resource users aimed at ecosystem management.73 Environmentalists tended to emphasize the substantive aspects that derived from the ESA. So, for instance, they deployed ecosystem management in the Northwest Forest Plan on the West Coast to stop logging to protect the northern spotted owl. Meanwhile, resource communities worked to assure the procedural elements derived from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) were protected. For example, the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project collaborated with numerous governments and agencies gathering information for endangered species and forest management planning. This work satisfied procedural guarantees and did so without prioritizing species protection or some other foreordained conclusion. The malleability of ecosystem management meant that different administrations or agencies could use it to emphasize either environmental protection or political priorities or economic goals. That very malleability may doom the paradigm’s long-term effectiveness. Meanwhile, standstills around public land issues indicate old management paradigms are failing. Too, statistics about timber harvest levels or grazing levels demonstrate unequivocally that the days of maximizing economic productivity lay in the past.74

Recent Currents

Despite its promise, ecosystem management has not solved all of the environmental problems evident on the public lands. Fires remain a ubiquitous issue, as public lands resemble nothing so much as a tinder box ready to incinerate every summer. Droughts continue, and climate change threatens to worsen the situation moving into the future. Fire suppression over decades has built up fuels while budget cuts and changing management priorities have made it difficult for federal agencies to get ahead in their fire management, despite the cooperation reflected in the National Interagency Fire Center headquartered in Boise.75

Although some ecosystems thrive on these burns that seem to increase every year, threats to the lives of firefighters and property make fire a political issue as well as an ecological one. The development of the phenomenon that historian Lincoln Bramwell terms “wilderburbs” puts these issues into context. Building on consumer desires to be close to nature and connected to urban amenities (e.g., water, electricity, and security), real estate developers have pushed up into mountainsides adjacent to public lands. These “wilderburbs” seem to offer this sense of connection and remoteness, but homeowners remain vulnerable to wildfire, wildlife, and the difficulties of water supply in what is also known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI). The dream persists that the public lands offer the natural amenities affluent Americans crave, but in their desires they have created vulnerability for their property and weakened the links wildlife need in sensitive ecotones.76

More fundamentally, resource managers and scientists have reconsidered basic assumptions that undergird conservation. For most of the 20th century, conservation proceeded under the premise that if protected from disturbance—human or natural—protected areas would regenerate and sustain themselves. Experience on the ground has taught otherwise, leading to new ideas. Among them, ecologists and other environmental scientists now call for protecting larger areas so that biodiversity can thrive and allow a larger range of disturbance now seen as essential to ecosystem stability. The areas adjacent to conserved acreage, too, are seen to be essential, which leads to the challenging problem of interspersed public and private property. More than ever, then, managers see the public lands as essential yet insufficient for restoration and sustainability of species.77

Besides lingering ecological challenges, public land politics remain contentious, although not always insurmountable. Despite being deeply divided, at times the Republicans and Democrats representing the East and the West can pass legislation. In 2009, for instance, President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, legislation that designated two million acres of wilderness from Washington State to West Virginia. To build that bipartisan support, the law made several special provisions, though, that supported controversial activities related to grazing and off-road vehicle use. A result of many years of building support and accommodating diverse local interests, the law represented an important achievement at a time when such large laws (it nearly reached five hundred pages) for conservation were rare. Still, some critics argued it protected too much; others said it did too little.78

The political gridlock and cultural divisions that made the omnibus bill’s passage such a rarity play out in various ways among the agencies and in public. By some accounts, agencies’ morale is low, caused by chronic underfunding, shifting and sometimes confused missions, and hostile constituents.79 The exploits of the Bundy family reveal the extreme edge of this hostility. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who depended on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land to graze his cattle, stopped paying grazing fees in 1993 and was ordered by a federal court five years later to stop grazing his cattle on public land, in part because the range he used provided critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. The court affirmed that judgement in 2013, giving Bundy forty-five days to remove his cattle. By 2014, his bill of unpaid fees surpassed $1 million. When federal officials began confiscating his cattle, still illegally grazing on public land, allies traveled across the West to support Bundy. Images of his supporters, characterized as “armed militias,” showed them aiming their weapons at federal agents. Worried about heightening tensions, BLM agents stopped their operation, and Bundy declared victory. The following year, one of Bundy’s sons led another group of men to take over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, a haven for waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway. The armed occupation lasted for more than a month and ended with one protester dead. Protesters saw the federal government as an illegitimate presence, the removal of which would clear a way for the return of ranching. The event—a spectacle of anti-government animosity—riveted national attention on public land issues in a faraway corner of the West.80

Lurking just under the surface of these sorts of encounters is the troubled history of race and the public lands. The Bundys and friends at Malheur wanted a return to the past—a past that put ranchers and not government managers in charge, but not one that put the Paiutes in charge. Inadvertently, then, the Bundys point us to consider the place of marginalized groups in American public land history. Through most of their history, public land agencies have not seemed to serve or be staffed by women and people of color. Although the civil rights movement influenced the agencies, progress has been slow in diversifying personnel. Today, the National Park Service (NPS) has increased its sites dedicated to a multicultural American past and tells its story in more inclusive ways; it has also tried but struggled to make its employees look like the nation. Nevertheless, the more closely we look and the more carefully we listen, voices emerge that declare the importance of these lands for the identity of all Americans, even though not always for the same reasons or with the same values.81

No one writes more poignantly of the ways race and culture entwine with the American landscape than Lauret Savoy, a voice that itself mingles the heritage of three continents.82 Savoy writes of landscapes imbued with stories generations old and many long-forgotten, reminding us of the different people, experiences, and values that characterize all American places. She also questions why our stories so often reduce the experience of American nature to a simple one, a national identity that clearly does not represent all Americans. Savoy wonders, is she included in Aldo Leopold’s “we” that he describes in his land ethic? As a child, because she knew the harshness of human relations, Savoy longed for “a place before race.” “To inhabit this country,” she explains, “is to be marked by residues of its still unfolding history, a history weighted by tangled ideas of ‘race’ and of the land itself.”83 The history of the public lands, when investigated deeply, helps us think through the inhabitation Savoy references.84

The noted writer Terry Tempest Williams also might help us travel the range of ideas and actions and positions in contemporary public lands issues. In early 2016, Williams engaged in what became a public protest over public land energy development. The BLM auctioned tens of thousands of acres in Utah, where Williams lives, for energy leases. She acquired a ten-year lease on 1,120 acres for only $1,680. Implicitly, she highlighted the absurdly low cost of such leases. But her explicit intent brought attention to the “Keep It in the Ground” movement. As scientists continue to identify greenhouse gas emissions as the primary fuel of anthropogenic climate change, they and the activists they have inspired call to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Williams formed an energy company—Williams Exploration—but the energy she hoped to produce would be “the kind that will fuel moral imagination.” Writing in the New York Times, Williams continued, “We need to harness this spiritual and political energy to sustain the planet we call home.” In October, the BLM rescinded the lease, arguing that Williams Exploration needed to be “reasonably diligent in developing its lease.”85

Williams was not done in 2016. Shortly after obtaining her BLM lease, Williams published The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks to commemorate the NPS centennial. The book celebrates and critiques the parks. For Williams, the national parks and public lands more generally help us confront the history of our nation, a healthy reflection for any democracy. In her apt and poetic characterization, the parks have become “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.” These lands are the inheritance of all Americans, an inclusive vision Williams adopts at a time when clear-eyed thinking about the nation’s national inheritance is as needed as ever.86 The public lands are not simply about wilderness and wildlife, resource commodities and communities, opportunities and open spaces. They are about the nation and its political system and its people. In just this way, public land history is entangled and unfolding and always a perfect repository of this imperfect democracy.

Discussion of the Literature

Histories of the public lands fall into several categories, each of which have shifted in their emphases over time. General histories of all of the public lands exist, but more common are studies that focus on one type of public land agency (e.g., Forest Service) or even a particular unit in the system (e.g., Yosemite National Park). Some studies use a concept (e.g., wilderness, ecosystem management) to transcend jurisdiction and have influenced the scholarship in recent years.

Historians long focused on the creation of the public land system. The process of creating laws to dispose of the public domain and then establish the public land agencies captured historians’ attention in a series of broad studies dating from early in the 20th century.87 These studies typically framed public lands as part of western or frontier studies, seeing problems of settling public lands as a central feature of American expansion. In this vein, Paul W. Gates produced the most complete guide to American land law as part of the congressionally mandated Public Land Law Review Commission, which appeared in 1968 as History of Public Land Law Development, an eight-hundred-page compendium essential to anyone working on these issues. Today, however, a half-century has passed with new land laws that have complicated the management of public lands. The second edition of Samuel Trask Dana and Sally K. Fairfax’s Forest and Range Policy: Its Development in the United States takes the story up to 1980. A useful addition, from two political scientists, is American Environmental Policy: Beyond Gridlock, which explains why policymaking continues in innovative ways in environmental directions—what they call “green drift”—despite congressional gridlock since the 1990s.88

Besides these broad-scale studies that account for the disposition of the public domain, the most common types of scholarship have focused on the public land agencies and units themselves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the one agency without a book-length history, and the Bureau of Land Management has only one monograph that focuses on it exclusively.89 The literature on national parks is vast, containing work on the system as a whole and on individual parks. Often this work has celebrated the national park idea, seeing it as a natural embodiment of American nationalism.90 More critical accounts of the National Park Service (NPS) have appeared in the last generation, focusing on issues such as science and the fraught relations between Native peoples and the parks.91 The national monuments, part of the NPS, have remained underexamined, especially since one historian proclaimed the Antiquities Act “the most important piece of preservation legislation ever enacted by the United States government,” and it remains controversial in current political discussions.92 Forest Service historiography may be the most developed in the public land tradition, largely because it is both the oldest agency and its multiple-use policy means historians have produced studies of timber, range, recreation, and more. The agency has a standard administrative history that is supplemented by several studies that examine specific management focus areas.93 Biographies have sometimes offered pathways of insight into public lands management.94

Since environmental history’s rise and florescence, new approaches elaborate on the administrative focus. Now, ecology and various concepts often help frame public lands studies. Paying attention to how environmental forces shape and are shaped by public land administration has made historians’ work relevant to ongoing debates.95 Besides the history of ecological changes, historians, much like ecologists, have also recently recognized that boundaries between jurisdictions are problematic when managing land and resources. Consequently, they have paid more attention to the mobility of people, pests, and resources that cross those boundaries, as well as focusing on areas where intermingled jurisdiction makes a single-agency study less helpful.96 Studies of wilderness also transcend a single agency, but the U.S. Forest Service probably has received the most emphasis, with the NPS not far behind.97 This discussion of the literature has privileged a broad national story, but narrower regional studies have done much to shape and challenge traditional reviews.

To generalize, scholarship has moved from political, economic, and legal accounts of creating the public land system to studies that bring more critical perspectives to environmental and cultural problems associated with these spaces on the landscape.

Primary Sources

The primary evidence for public land history is voluminous, too much for a single scholar to assimilate. The iron triangle of policymaking can help conceptualize and organize the range of available sources. That is, the records of each side of the iron triangle—bureaucracies, Congress, and interest groups—offer significant basis for historical analysis.


The public lands agencies eventually archive their materials at the National Archives, including their branches around the country. The record groups (RG) follow: U.S. Forest Service (RG 95); National Park Service (RG 79); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (RG 22); and Bureau of Land Management (RG 49).


Committees provide valuable records, especially through hearings conducted related to specific public land questions. Both the House and Senate created a Committee on Public Lands that functioned for nearly all of the 19th century until the mid-20th century. Then, various committees consolidated and changed names multiple times. Today, the House includes a Subcommittee on Public Lands in its Committee on Natural Resources; the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources includes a Subcommittee on National Parks and a Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forestry, and Mining. In addition, legislators debated important policies, sometimes over multiple years, on the floor of Congress, which has left a rich set of artifacts in the Congressional Record. Finally, a public land commission has reviewed land policy on four occasions: Public Lands Commission of 1879–1883; Public Lands Commission of 1903–1905; Committee on the Conservation and Administration of the Public Domain of 1929–1931; and Public Land Law Review Commission of 1964–1970. Each of these commissions produced reports at the behest of Congress, which constituted important perspectives of the system at large. Many more specialized congressional reports and hearing records exist.

Interest Groups

The records for interest groups are more scattered than the government documents. They are far too extensive to account for here, so this listing ought to be considered a sampling. Interest groups might be understood as dividing among industry groups and environmental groups. Relevant industry groups include such groups focused on livestock production or timber issues. For instance, the records of the National Forest Products Association are included in the holdings at the Forest History Society archives in Durham, North Carolina, which includes other organizational and individual papers essential for forest history. Similarly, the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming, contains the records of the National Cattlemen’s Association, National Wool Grower’s Association, and related organizations. On the environmental side, the Denver Public Library’s Conservation Collection includes dozens of large and small collections from individuals and organizations, making it one of the best repositories for public land history. Likewise, the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, contains Sierra Club records, which reflect more than a century of advocacy related to public lands.

Some scholars have suggested that courts have become another side to the iron triangle. This is especially the case after the National Environmental Policy Act, which changed citizen access to litigation. Accordingly, legal records, including judicial opinions, have become a critical part of the historical record. A final set of primary source material is found in various memoirs and diaries of public land agents, as well as environmentalists who have worked to change the direction of the agencies. All of these materials include both national and local manifestations, so it is useful to examine local historical societies and regional university archives.

Further Reading

  • Cawley, R. McGreggor. Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.
  • Dana, Samuel Trask, and Sally K. Fairfax. Forest and Range Policy: Its Development in the United States. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.
  • Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968.
  • Hirt, Paul W. A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
  • Klyza, Christopher McGrory, and David J. Sousa. American Environmental Policy: Beyond Gridlock. Updated and expanded ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2013.
  • Langston, Nancy. Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.
  • Langston, Nancy. Where Land and Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.
  • Merrill, Karen R. Public Lands and Political Meaning: Ranchers, the Government, and the Property between Them. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 5th ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.
  • Rothman, Hal. America’s National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.
  • Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience. 4th ed. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade, 2010.
  • Sellars, Richard West. Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • Skillen, James R. The Nation’s Largest Landlord: The Bureau of Land Management in the American West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.
  • Skillen, James R. Federal Ecosystem Management: Its Rise, Fall, and Afterlife. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015.
  • Spence, Mark David. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Steen, Harold K. The U.S. Forest Service: A History. Centennial ed. Durham, NC, and Seattle: Forest History Society and University of Washington Press, 2004.
  • Turner, James Morton. The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.
  • Wilkinson, Charles F. Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1992.


  • 1. Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); and Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

  • 2. Mark Fiege, The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 69–70.

  • 3. Fiege, Republic of Nature, 72–74; Daniel W. Bromley, “Private Property and the Public Interest: Land in the American Idea,” in Land in the American West: Private Claims and the Common Good, eds. William G. Robbins and James C. Foster (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 25–28.

  • 4. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, in The Portable Thomas Jefferson, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Penguin, 1975), 217.

  • 5. This vision failed to materialize in part because the Louisiana Purchase that Jefferson engineered extended slavery more than yeomanry, undercutting the virtuous republic. This is one of many examples of land policy failing to produce its intended effects. See Roger G. Kennedy, Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

  • 6. Paul W. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968), 49–74, thoroughly covers the material in this paragraph.

  • 7. Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth; Nature’s Role in American History, 3d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 61–63.

  • 8. John Opie, The Law of the Land: Two Hundred Years of American Farmland Policy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 10–11, 14. Originally published in 1987.

  • 9. Amy S. Greenberg, ed., Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2012) collects contemporary documents showing this belief in action. An insightful essay on sexuality and land connected to these themes is Peter Boag, “Thinking Like Mount Rushmore: Sexuality and Gender in the Republican Landscape,” in Seeing Nature through Gender, ed. Virginia J. Scharff (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 40–59.

  • 10. Many examples of this ubiquitous process exist, but for one powerful case study focused on the Great Basin, see Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

  • 11. Gates, History of Public Land Law, 127, 238–245.

  • 12. An Act to Secure Homesteads to Actual Settlers on the Public Domain, U.S. Statutes at Large 12 (1862): 392; Fiege, Republic of Nature, 156–198.

  • 13. Gates, History of Public Land Law, 399–401.

  • 14. Gates, History of Public Land Law, 463–494.

  • 15. Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: Norton, 2011), 24.

  • 16. A good overview of these widespread and related problems can be found Charles F. Wilkinson, Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1992).

  • 17. James Willard Hurst, Law and the Condition of Freedom in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1956); and Richard White, “Contested Terrain: The Business of Land in the American West,” in Land in the American West, eds. Robbins and Foster, 198.

  • 18. A classic text that tells of this shift is Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 5th ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

  • 19. Aubrey L. Haines, Yellowstone National Park: Its Exploration and Establishment (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1974), 104–105 passim (for disbelief of the press); Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 108–121; and Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience, 4th ed. (Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade, 2010), 29–41.

  • 20. The National Park Service digitized Lary M. Dilsaver, ed., America’s National Park System: The Critical Documents (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), which contains excerpts of many important documents, including, “An Act to Set Apart a Certain Tract of Land Lying Near the Headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a Public Park.”

  • 21. An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities,” in America’s National Park System, ed. Dilsaver; and Hal Rothman, America’s National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989).

  • 22. Harold K. Steen, The U.S. Forest Service: A History (Durham, NC, and Seattle: Forest History Society and University of Washington Press, 2004), 34–37 (quotation from 36); and Wilkinson, Crossing the Next Meridian, 124.

  • 23. Wilkinson, Crossing the Next Meridian, 124–131 (quotation from 128); the letter is also reproduced at Forest History Society, “The Wilson Letter.” Char Miller, Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2001), 156–157.

  • 24. Lisa M. Brady, War upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 136–140; Rothman, America’s National Monuments; and Runte, National Parks. National monuments were administered by the agency from whose land they had been created until 1933 when an executive order placed them under the National Park Service (Rothman, America’s National Monuments, 187).

  • 25. Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994); Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); and Louis S. Warren, The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997). In a recent book, Theodore Catton argued that because of the tradition of heritage, national forests and the Forest Service sometimes have been easier for Native Americans to work with. However, many national forests also incorporated dispossessed Indian land; see Catton, American Indians and National Forests (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016).

  • 26. An Act to Establish a National Park Service and for Other Purposes,” in Dilsaver, ed., America’s National Park System, emphasis added.

  • 27. Karen R. Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meaning: Ranchers, the Government, and the Property between Them (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 63–102; Char Miller, Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2012), 85–89; Steen, U.S. Forest Service, 87–89; and Wilkinson, Crossing the Next Meridian, 91–92.

  • 28. Miller, Public Lands, 79–82; Stephen J. Pyne, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 349–354 (originally published in 1982); and Steen, U.S. Forest Service, 122–131, 185–189.

  • 29. The Everglades was approved by Congress in 1934 but no appropriations hindered its implementation until it was finally dedicated in 1947.

  • 30. Jack E. Davis, An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009); Sara M. Gregg, Managing the Mountains: Land Use Planning, the New Deal, and the Creation of a Federal Landscape in Appalachia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 105–139; and Runte, National Parks, 101, 107, 122–123.

  • 31. Paul S. Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: University of Washington, 2002). On the “Grand Tour,” see Michael P. Cohen, The History of the Sierra Club, 1892–1970 (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 38–47; and Rothman, America’s National Monuments, 89–116.

  • 32. Sutter, Driven Wild, 253–254.

  • 33. David Louter, Windshield Wilderness: Cars, Roads, and Nature in Washington’s National Parks (Seattle: University of Washington, 2006), 68–104.

  • 34. Mark W. T. Harvey, A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000). Originally published in 1994.

  • 35. John C. Miles, Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), 132–136; Runte, National Parks, 158; and Richard West Sellars, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 180–191.

  • 36. Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), 45–67 (quotation from 56).

  • 37. Adam M. Sowards, “Reclamation, Ranching, and Reservation: Environmental, Cultural, and Governmental Rivalries in Transitional Arizona,” Journal of the Southwest 40.3 (Autumn 1998): 333–361.

  • 38. William deBuys, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 164–173.

  • 39. Pyne, Fire in America, 349–354.

  • 40. Pyne, Fire in America, 242–259.

  • 41. Steen, U.S. Forest Service, 222–277 passim (quotation from 251). For the International Woodworkers of America, see Erik Loomis: Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 89–122.

  • 42. Data available from the Forest Service.

  • 43. Paul W. Hirt, A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994). Also, Steen, U.S Forest Service, 246–307.

  • 44. Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York: HarperCollins, 2009); Andrew C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 164–192; Jennifer Price, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 1–109; and John F. Reiger, American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation, 3d ed. (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001).

  • 45. Peter S. Alagona, After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 87–92; Stephen R. Fox, The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 190–199; Nancy Langston, Where Land and Water Meet: A Western Landscape Transformed (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 63–90; and Robert M. Wilson, Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 34–98.

  • 46. Alagona, After the Grizzly, 91–92; Langston, Where Land and Water Meet, 91–116; and Wilson, Seeking Refuge, 99–131.

  • 47. The Western Range, Senate, 74th Cong., 2d sess., Document No. 199 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1936), vii–ix, 1–8. Scholars have largely discounted the details in The Western Range because of its obvious political purposes and lack of scientific details; for instance, Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meaning, 161–164; and Matthew Allen Pearce, “Discontent on the Range: Uncovering the Origins of Public Grazing Lands Politics in the Intermountain West” (PhD diss., University of Oklahoma, 2014), 230–238. However, Donald Worster has argued that subsequent reports confirmed the basic conclusions in “Cowboy Ecology,” in Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 48–49.

  • 48. Leisl Carr Childers, The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), 32–35; Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meaning, 135–168 and passim; and E. Louise Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain: Disposal and Reservation Policies, 1900–50 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951), 214–224.

  • 49. James R. Skillen, The Nation’s Largest Landlord: The Bureau of Land Management in the American West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), 14.

  • 50. Samuel Trask Dana and Sally K. Fairfax, Forest and Range Policy: Its Development in the United States, 2d ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980), 187.

  • 51. Carr Childers, Size of the Risk, 15–53, captures the ways ranchers in the Great Basin rely on an intricate balance of public and private lands. Without all the parts, the whole collapses. See also Gates, History of Public Land Law Development, 610–615; Skillen, Nation’s Largest Landlord, 1–37; and Wilkinson, Crossing the Next Meridian, 93–94.

  • 52. Two edited volumes bring many of DeVoto’s articles together; see Bernard DeVoto, The Western Paradox: A Conservation Reader, eds. Douglas Brinkley and Patricia Nelson Limerick (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000; and Bernard DeVoto, DeVoto’s West: History, Conservation, and the Public Good, ed. Edward K. Muller (Athens: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2005).

  • 53. Skillen, Nation’s Largest Landlord, 38–71.

  • 54. Hirt, Conspiracy of Optimism, 171–192; Steen, U.S. Forest Service, 278–307.

  • 55. Wilderness Act of 1964, Public Law 88–577, 88th Cong., 2d sess. (September 3, 1964), 891.

  • 56. Mark Harvey, Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005); and James Morton Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964 (Seattle: University of Washington, 2012).

  • 57. Skillen, Nation’s Largest Landlord, 101.

  • 58. Sellars, Preserving Nature in the National Parks, 214–228. The report is available at National Park Service, Wildlife Management in the National Parks: The Leopold Report (1963). Quotation is from “The Goal of Park Management in the United States.”

  • 59. Endangered Species Act of 1973, Public Law 93–205, 93d Cong., 1st sess. (December 28, 1973), 884. Alagona, After the Grizzly.

  • 60. Hirt, Conspiracy of Optimism, 260–265 (quotation from 263).

  • 61. Skillen, Nation’s Largest Landlord, 103–111; Marion Clawson, The Federal Lands Revisited (Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1983), 50–51; and Samuel P. Hays in collaboration with Barbara D. Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955–1985 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 127.

  • 62. This is the argument of Christopher McGrory Klyza and David J. Sousa, American Environmental Policy: Beyond Gridlock, updated and expanded ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2013).

  • 63. Stephen Haycox attributes Alaska’s “exaggerated antistatism” as an important backdrop to the environmental controversies in the state; see Haycox, Battleground Alaska: Fighting Federal Power in America’s Last Wilderness (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016), 2.

  • 64. Theodore Catton, Inhabited Wilderness: Indians, Eskimos, and National Parks in Alaska (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997).

  • 65. Turner, The Promise of Wilderness, 149.

  • 66. Catton, Inhabited Wilderness; Kathie Durbin, Tongass: Pulp Politics and the Fight for the Alaska Rain Forest (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999); Roger Kaye, Last Great Wilderness: The Campaign to Establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2006); Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 272–315; and Turner, The Promise of Wilderness, 141–181.

  • 67. R. McGreggor Cawley, Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993).

  • 68. Cawley, Federal Land, Western Anger, esp. 123–142; and Merrill, Public Lands, Political Meaning, esp. 103–134.

  • 69. Cawley, Federal Land, Western Anger, 143–155.

  • 70. Hirt, Conspiracy of Optimism, 233–235, 278–281; Loomis, Empire of Timber, 192–230; and Turner, The Promise of Wilderness, 249–255, 274–280.

  • 71. Although reintroduction is only a short part of the book, the best history of wolves is Jon T. Coleman, Vicious: Wolves and Men in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004). A helpful account that shows how a grizzly bear reintroduction plan got sidelined by political polarization is found in Michael J. Dax, Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

  • 72. James R. Skillen, Federal Ecosystem Management: Its Rise, Fall, and Afterlife (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015), esp. 17–86 for evolution of these ideas.

  • 73. Skillen, Federal Ecosystem Management, 5 for the first time Skillen uses the different emphases.

  • 74. Skillen, Federal Ecosystem Management.

  • 75. Stephen J. Pyne, Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015).

  • 76. Lincoln Bramwell, Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature's Edge (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).

  • 77. This overturning of assumptions is summarized well in Norman L. Christensen, “Preserving Nature on US Federal Lands: Managing Change in the Context of Change,” in After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans, eds. Ben A. Minteer and Stephen J. Pyne (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 146–153.

  • 78. Turner, The Promise of Wilderness, 392–397.

  • 79. Miller, Public Lands, Public Debates, 151–155 focuses on the U.S. Forest Service’s identity crisis, just beneath the surface of which one senses a crisis of morale.

  • 80. Press coverage has been widespread. A good summary leading up to the occupation at Malheur is found in Jaime Fuller, “The Long Fight between the Bundys and the Federal Government, from 1989 to Today,” Washington Post, January 4, 2016. For history of the Malheur, see Langston, Where Land and Water Meet.

  • 81. Carolyn Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Glenn Nelson, “A Backup in the National Parks Jobs Pipeline,” High Country News, August 22, 2016, 14–18; and Donna Sinclair, “Caring for the Land, Serving People: Creating a Multicultural Forest Service in the Civil Rights Era” (PhD. diss.: Portland State University, 2015).

  • 82. Lauret Savoy, “Untold Stories of the National Parks,” Travel + Leisure.

  • 83. Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2015), 185.

  • 84. Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces.

  • 85. Brian Maffly, “Auction of Utah Oil and Gas Leases Spurs Author Terry Tempest Williams to (Legally) Buy Lease,” Salt Lake Tribune, February 16, 2016; Terry Tempest Williams, “Keeping My Fossil Fuel in the Ground,” New York Times, March 29, 2016; and Brian Maffly, “BLM Pulls Back Oil and Gas Leases Bought by Utah Activist, Author Terry Tempest Williams,” Salt Lake Tribune, October 29, 2016.

  • 86. Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2016), 37, 92, and passim for “inheritance,” and 88 for “breathing space.”

  • 87. Benjamin Horace Hibbard, A History of the Public Land Policies (1924; repr., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965); Roy M. Robbins, Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776–1970, 2d ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976) (first edition was published in 1942); E. Louise Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain: Disposal and Reservation Policies, 1900–50 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951); and Vernon Carstensen, ed., The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968).

  • 88. Dana and Fairfax, Forest and Range Policy; and Klyza and Sousa, American Environmental Policy.

  • 89. Robert L. Fischman, The National Wildlife Refuges: Coordinating a Conservation System through Law (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003) comes close but is more a legal analysis than a history of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Skillen, Nation’s Largest Landlord. Many studies of grazing, of course, focus on the Bureau of Land Management.

  • 90. Runte, National Parks, is the best example of this approach. In the popular realm, see Dayton Duncan, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; An Illustrated History (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009), which was a companion to Ken Burns’s documentary film of the same title.

  • 91. Sellars, Preserving Nature, on science. The literature of Native peoples and other marginalized groups is growing, but a good place to start is with Catton, Inhabited Wilderness; Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness, and Warren, Hunter’s Game.

  • 92. Rothman, America’s National Monuments, xi.

  • 93. Steen, U.S. Forest Service, is the main administrative history. Hirt’s Conspiracy of Optimism offers a trenchant critique of timber policies primarily, although other parts of the U.S. Forest Service portfolio receive some attention. An administrative history of USFS grazing policy is William D. Rowley, U.S. Forest Service Grazing and Rangelands: A History (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1985). Pyne’s Fire in America is broader than just the USFS, but his Between Two Fires largely focuses on the Forest Service since 1960; this work makes a compelling case for how central fire is to the USFS mission throughout its existence.

  • 94. For instance, Miller, Gifford Pinchot; and Sutter, Driven Wild.

  • 95. One of the first and still best examples of this is Nancy Langston, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995).

  • 96. On mobility and intermingling jurisdictions, see, for instance, Alagona, After the Grizzly; Bramwell, Wilderburbs; Carr Childers, Size of the Risk; Mark Fiege, “The Weedy West: Mobile Nature, Boundaries, and Common Space in the Montana Landscape,” Western Historical Quarterly 36 (Spring 2005): 22–47; Adam M. Sowards and Rebecca Stunz, “Mobile Nature, Cooperative Management, and Institutional Adaptation in Pacific Northwest Blister Rust Control in the 20th Century,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 105.4 (Fall 2014): 159–174; and Wilson, Seeking Refuge.

  • 97. Turner’s Promise of Wilderness covers the post–Wilderness Act period across the nation with the Forest Service receiving the bulk of attention. A regional exemplar is Kevin R. Marsh, Drawing Lines in the Forest: Creating Wilderness Areas in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007). For the National Park Service, see John C. Miles, Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009).