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Public Land Issues

May 1, 2001 --

Our federal public lands, namely the National Parks, National Forests, BLM Lands, National Wildlife Refuges, and National Marine Sanctuaries are continually plagued with a wide range of problems from damaging mining activities to questionable land exchanges to invasions of exotic species. Because these lands are owned by the diverse American public, they must be shared amongst countless interests. Consequently, it is no surprise that management issues are accompanied by fierce controversy as the opinions and desires of the public come into conflict over these collectively owned lands. Today's most prominent issues can be divided into the following categories: commercial use and resource extraction, public use, changes in status and ownership, and ecological health.


Commercial Use and Resource Extraction

Mining, logging, oil and gas extraction, grazing, and commercial fishing are probably the most controversial public lands issues for many reasons. First is the obvious problem of resource depletion; our forests, fisheries, rangelands and fossil fuels are being consumed at unsustainable rates, and as a result our supplies are constantly dwindling. Secondly, the removal of resources and the methods by which they are extracted are having profound negative impacts on our environment:

  • Mining is the top toxic polluter of all U.S. industry, causing extremely severe soil and water pollution.
  • Logging has destroyed over 95% of our original old growth forests, resulting in widespread habitat loss, water pollution, severe soil erosion and nutrient loss, and many other negative impacts.
  • Oil and gas activities cause a wide range of damage including air pollution, countless leaks and spills, and destruction of wildlife habitat due to the construction of massive industrial facilities.
  • Widespread grazing impacts (water pollution, forage loss, spread of disease, etc) have resulted in the listing of 90 threatened and endangered species.
  • Many commercial fishing techniques completely destroy marine habitats, greatly threatening biodiversity and fisheries sustainability.

Finally, these commercial activities (with the exception of fishing) are heavily subsidized by taxpayer money, a phenomenon known as "corporate welfare". Americans are paying large industrial corporations and ranchers to deplete our resources and destroy our environment on our public lands.


Public Use Issues

The issues of Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) use, excess visitation, and user fees are very difficult to resolve because they involve limiting public use of lands that are publicly owned. Unfortunately these issue areas, though very different from one another, are all negatively impacting public lands in their own ways.

  • ORVs cause widespread habitat damage, air and water pollution, and conflicts with other recreational users. However, ORV users believe they have a right to recreate on public lands.
  • Excess visitation has placed tremendous stress on our public lands (particularly National Parks) in the forms of vehicle traffic, air pollution, noise, and increased development. It is very difficult for public land managers to determine how to balance visitation with conservation.
  • Our public lands agencies are severely under-funded, and as a result our public lands are suffering in various ways. Many agencies have been charging new or increased user fees under the new "fee-demo" program to help remedy the situation, however this has been an extremely controversial issue as many groups feel they are being overcharged to use the lands that they technically own.


Changes in Status and Ownership

In theory, our public lands are managed to promote conservation, sustainable use, and preservation for future generations. Consequently, changes in land status or ownership can affect the land's level of protection. Current issues in this category include the Antiquities Act, roadless areas, land exchanges, and urban encroachment.

  • The Antiquities Act allows the President of the United States to act promptly to protect threatened lands by designating them as National Monuments. Many government officials feel that the Act has been abused by past presidents (especially Clinton) and are seeking to limit the president's power under the Act.
  • Roadless areas in National Forests have recently received increased protection by former President Clinton under his Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Unfortunately, the affected commercial industries (logging, mining, and oil and gas) and the Bush administration are fighting to overturn the new rule.
  • Land exchanges occur when public lands are traded for private lands of equal value. Unfortunately there are several serious problems with the land exchange program that result in subsidized environmental degradation and financial losses to American taxpayers.
  • Development of private lands on the outskirts of, and even inside of, our public lands has resulted in problems of urban encroachment: habitat loss, air pollution, traffic congestion, population growth, etc.


Ecological Health

Over the years, humans have altered the environment in a number of ways that have caused changes to biological resources and natural processes everywhere on the earth, including our public lands. Consequently, public land agencies are left with the difficult task of managing unbalanced ecosystems. Current issues are exotic species, fire management, and wild horses and burros.

  • Invasive exotic species (plants and animals) can be extremely harmful by upsetting the natural balance of ecosystems and greatly threatening biodiversity. Unfortunately these exotics are very difficult and costly to control and are therefore becoming a very serious problem.
  • We have learned that fire is a natural and essential component of many western ecosystems, yet the Forest Service continues to implement its traditional strategy of total fire suppression rather than a more integrated fire management approach. This extremely costly program negatively impacts ecosystem health and endangers the lives of firefighters.
  • Laws protecting wild horses and burros have worked too well- the animals' populations have grown too large. The resulting management strategies are very controversial amongst environmentalists, ranching interests, animal rights groups, and others.

Management plans provide a means for land managers to set goals for, and guide the direction of, the futures of our various public lands. Unfortunately these plans are not always effective as many plans are outdated or created with inappropriate intentions. In Yosemite National Park, for example, the recently completed plans for Yosemite Valley and the Merced River are seen by many environmental groups and local communities as a great threat to the park's future, increasing development and decreasing protection for the park's already stressed resources.

Upon consideration of these public lands issues it appears that the managing agencies are often failing to uphold their mission statements and are defeating the purpose for which the public lands were created. As a result, our public lands are plagued by countless problems that are threatening their health and survival.

> Click here to download our Public Lands report for full details...

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