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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.

Article

Brazil, the fifth-largest country on earth, has almost a third of its territory classified as protected areas. They include nature reserves with the strictest level of protection and areas reserved for sustainable use. They comprise, in their majority, public lands, but contain a percentage of privately owned estates. They are regulated by a centralized national system of protected areas, but their management is fragmented at all levels of government—federal, state, and municipal. They are located in the sparsely inhabited Brazilian hinterland but can also be found close to the country’s large and densely populated cities. And throughout the years, they have appealed to a diversity of values and policy goals to justify their existence: protection of natural features, development of frontiers, preservation of endangered species and their inhabitants, conservation of biodiversity, sustainability, social justice. All in all, the protected areas of Brazil represent one of the most extensive and ambitious forms of territorial intervention ever implemented in the country. It was not always like that. With a few exceptions, protected areas controlled by the state for the sake of conserving natural landscapes and resources were mostly absent before the 20th century. It was only in the 1930s that the Vargas regime established the first national parks in Brazil. They were followed by a dozen other parks in the 1950s and 1960s, but up until the 1970s, the establishment of protected areas in Brazil lacked proper planning, institutional support, and policy goals. This situation changed in the mid-1970s, during the height of the military dictatorship, when an alliance of Brazilian and foreign conservationists began pushing for the inclusion of protected areas in Amazonian development programs. The adoption of the language and methods of dictatorship-era territorial planning by the proponents of conservation set the basis for the development of a national system of protected areas. The system took twenty years to be passed into law, a period that coincided with the end of twenty-one years of military dictatorship and the return to democracy in Brazil. One of the novelties of this period was the appearance of groups, such as Amazonian rubber tappers, with a stake in defining conservation policy. They introduced ideas of social justice in the conservation debate, in what came to be known as socio-environmentalism. It was also during the post-dictatorship period that Brazilian conservationism adopted global standards of conservation, for example protection of biodiversity and sustainable development, as justifiable policy goals. In the early 21st century Brazil counts over 2,300 distinct protected areas distributed throughout all of its twenty-six states. They are part of a single, but diverse, national system of protected areas.

Article

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.