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From the founding of the American republic through the 19th century, the nation’s environmental policy mostly centered on promoting American settlers’ conquest of the frontier. Early federal interventions, whether railroad and canal subsidies or land grant acts, led to rapid transformations of the natural environment that inspired a conservation movement by the end of the 19th century. Led by activists and policymakers, this movement sought to protect America’s resources now jeopardized by expansive industrial infrastructure. During the Gilded Age, the federal government established the world’s first national parks, and in the Progressive Era, politicians such as President Theodore Roosevelt called for the federal government to play a central role in ensuring the efficient utilization of the nation’s ecological bounty. By the early 1900s, conservationists established new government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, to regulate the consumption of trees, water, and other valuable natural assets. Wise-use was the watchword of the day, with environmental managers in DC’s bureaucracy focused mainly on protecting the economic value latent in America’s ecosystems. However, other groups, such as the Wilderness Society, proved successful at redirecting policy prescriptions toward preserving beautiful and wild spaces, not just conserving resources central to capitalist enterprise. In the 1960s and 1970s, suburban and urban environmental activists attracted federal regulators’ attention to contaminated soil and water under their feet. The era of ecology had arrived, and the federal government now had broad powers through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage ecosystems that stretched across the continent. But from the 1980s to the 2010s, the federal government’s authority to regulate the environment waxed and waned as economic crises, often exacerbated by oil shortages, brought environmental agencies under fire. The Rooseveltian logic of the Progressive Era, which said that America’s economic growth depended on federal oversight of the environment, came under assault from neoliberal disciples of Ronald Reagan, who argued that environmental regulations were in fact the root cause of economic stagnation in America, not a powerful prescription against it. What the country needed, according to the reformers of the New Right, was unregulated expansion into new frontiers. By the 2010s, the contours of these new frontiers were clear: deep-water oil drilling, Bakken shale exploration, and tar-sand excavation in Alberta, Canada. In many ways, the frontier conquest doctrine of colonial Americans found new life in deregulatory U.S. environmental policy pitched by conservatives in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. Never wholly dominant, this ethos carried on into the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.

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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.