What We Talk About When We Talk About Public Land (apologies to Raymond Carver)

A few years ago, we had what, in hindsight, was clearly a pivotal moment. After a fabulous visit to a national park—Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico—Lorrie bought a massive guidebook to the 58 (now 59) national parks. In Your Guide to the National Parks, author Michael Oswald describes each park, including its history and principal natural features, and provides practical information about the best times to visit, camping options, “don’t miss” hiking trails, and more. For us, this book provided fodder for lots of after-work fantasizing, which eventually (obviously) turned into a real plan and some major life decisions. We had long talked about taking an extended road trip across the United States as our parents had done in the 1980s and 1990s, and the national parks seemed to showcase the best of our country’s natural wonders. By taking eight months (May – December), we thought we could visit all of the parks in the Rocky Mountain, Pacific and southwestern states, spending about a week or more in each with time to spare. We did it! But we didn’t realize how much we’d still miss.

First of all, as any park ranger will tell you, the 59 national parks represent only a fraction of our national park system. The National Park Service is also responsible for 129 historical parks or sites, 87 national monuments, 25 battlefields or military parks, 19 preserves, 18 recreation areas, 10 seashores, four parkways, four lakeshores, and two reserves—in total, 417 sites covering more than 84 million acres. These sites preserve and protect places of outstanding natural beauty, or environmental or historic significance.

We found too that the National Park Service’s 84 million acres are just a small part of the federal government’s vast landholdings. The federal government owns about 640 million acres, which is about 28 percent of all the land in the United States. Four agencies are responsible for managing almost all of this land:  the Bureau of Land Management (nearly 40 percent), the United States Forest Service (30 percent), the Fish and Wildlife Service (almost 14 percent), and the National Park Service (about 12 percent). States own land too (about 200 million acres), some of which is developed as state parks or preserves. For example, the Redwood State Parks in the northwest corner of California were established long before nearby Redwoods National Park and actually protect more Coastal Redwoods than the national park. With the exception of military bases, almost all federal and state land is open to the public, and there are many places of astonishing beauty outside the national parks.

I confess that I didn’t know that the federal government owned so much land, perhaps because it is relatively rare in the more densely populated east. For example, federal lands account for 0.4 percent of the land in Connecticut and Rhode Island, 0.8 percent of New York, and 2.8 percent of Maryland. Of the 26 states east of the Mississippi River, only in North Carolina does the federal government own more than 10 percent of the land (11.8 percent), though Michigan and Virginia are close.

The situation is far different in the west, where the federal government owns more than half of the land in five large western states: Nevada, Alaska, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho. A whopping 84.5 percent of the land in Nevada, and 69.1 percent of Alaska, is owned by the federal government.

As we became aware of all this public land in the western states, we learned about its history and the vastly different development trajectories of the eastern and western states. Of course, all of the land in what is now the United States was originally seized from Native Americans by Europeans from one place or another. In the east, this mostly happened before the United States became a country, so most land was in private hands before it could be acquired by the government. The story is different in the west.

The country’s westward expansion was made possible as the federal government acquired land by buying it, negotiating title or seizing it from other countries that staked a claim. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added a large swathe of land in the middle of the country. In 1846, we negotiated with England, ceding claims to land above the 49th parallel in exchange for the Oregon Territory (today’s Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming). We purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Texas, much of the southwest, and California were annexed from Mexico in 1848 as a result of the treaty that ended the Mexican American War. In order to cement the United States’ claim to all this land, the government tried to distribute 160-acre homesteads to individuals willing to settle it. This worked fairly well in the Midwest. But in the arid west, such “small” parcels were only viable in the river valleys where irrigated agriculture was possible. Elsewhere, settlers needed much larger areas because the only thing they could do on the land was graze cattle. So the government retained ownership of the land instead and let ranchers use it. Over time, the government developed policies for managing its holdings as a good steward. It started selling permits for grazing, cutting timber or mining and imposed restrictions to avoid over exploitation of the resource. Eventually, Congress recognized the intrinsic value of preserving some land as wilderness as well.

The 1964 Wilderness Act and subsequent legislation created the National Wilderness Preservation System on land already owned by the government. Wilderness accounts for a bit more than 15 percent of federal land, of which 80 percent is in Alaska, California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington. About half of the land managed by the National Park Service is designated wilderness. Activities in wilderness areas are limited to non-invasive and non-motorized activities such as backpacking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, and scientific research. Those who visit the wilderness are asked to “leave no trace”—although we learned that even if each and every visitor follows the most conscientious practices, nearly all wilderness areas show signs of human impact because they are also affected by what happens outside their boundaries. We saw vividly this year how smoke, pollution, pesticide use, and a warming climate do not respect borders. Some of the best educational exhibits we visited talk about how wilderness is changing inevitably, even as the National Park Service and the other agencies work to preserve it.

Who benefits from all this public land? The simple answer is that we all do, and of course some of us benefit more than others.

For example, cattle ranchers are major beneficiaries of the extensive holdings of the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, as over half the land managed by these two agencies is available for grazing. Imagine the cost of buying and maintaining thousands of acres of scrubby grassland to graze cattle. Ranchers avoid this expense by paying small grazing fees to the government instead. The fees are $1.87 per “animal unit month” in 2017, down from $2.11 in 2016. This is substantially lower than private rental fees or permit fees on state land available for grazing, but comparison is difficult for several reasons, and ranchers often argue that the fee should be lower. Many environmentalists believe that the amount of grazing on public lands should be cut back. We saw first-hand how early settlers virtually destroyed native grasslands by over grazing it; these depleted soils will need generations of careful stewardship to recover their lost fertility and may never do so. One of the best national park examples of this is the Channel Islands off the coast of California, once devoted to grazing and now on a slow path to repair (see my blog on November 6).

The timber industry is another beneficiary of our public land. The United States Forest Service maintains beautiful swaths of forested land and is also trying to strike a balance for sustainable use. The agency sells permits for extracting a variety of timber and non-timber forest products. About 10 percent of the country’s roundwood production (that’s the technical term for whole logs) comes from the national forests. The total value of cut products produced in the national forests last year amounted to almost $500 million, of which about 85 percent was for saw wood (essentially lumber). Both the volume and value of cut products in the national forests has increased over the last decade.

All of the agencies encourage recreation on their landholdings and have developed considerable infrastructure to support it, including roads, visitor centers, campgrounds, and an extensive network of hiking trails. While the National Park Service is the most attentive to recreational users and sometimes provides hotels or lodges in addition to campgrounds and backcountry campsites, we found that we really loved the simple facilities provided by the Forest Service. Some of our best campsites were in Forest Service campgrounds, which are often located adjacent to national parks and offer more natural surroundings and solitude than their popular national park neighbors. There are many Forest Service areas that rival the national parks in jaw-dropping beauty and wildlife viewing opportunities.

While the national parks are undoubtedly gorgeous, we were surprised (disappointed even) to find significant accommodation to humans such as swimming pools (Yosemite and Pinnacles), a golf course (Death Valley), a marina (Yellowstone), hydroelectric dams (North Cascades), and even an airport (Grand Teton). As the Park Service constantly reviews its policies for managing the parks it sometimes tries to roll back facilities that were built to accommodate the public in a different era. For example, a small museum in Sequoia National Park recounts how policies to remove hazards to ensure the safety of cabins built among the Giant Sequoias began to threaten the very species that the park was designed to protect.

Although we worry that future generations of Americans will not value our natural places as we have in the past, current visitation statistics would suggest that the parks are loved—in some cases, to excess.  The most complete information on visitation is for the national parks, where visits have skyrocketed over the last decade. Last year, the National Park Service recorded nearly 330 million visits, which includes multiple visits by the same person. (Together we’ll account for 58 visits in 2017!) Our national parks and wilderness preservation system are considered a model worldwide, and other countries have copied our approach. We have enjoyed learning about a few of the men and women who envisioned these special places as a pillar of American democracy because they are available to everybody. And we have appreciated the dedication and professionalism of so many rangers and other staff and volunteers who continue to make the system work.

Visiting 29 national parks in these last eight months has been an opportunity of a lifetime. We have learned so much about our country and have been fortunate to see some amazing places in those parks and on other public land. We have particularly cherished those hikes and kayak outings that allowed us to venture into wilderness, for these are truly special places. But we realize more than ever that we have still only seen a fraction of the tremendous natural beauty of our country. Our “to-do list” is still long, as is our list of places where we hope to return and go more deeply into the wilderness. For anyone who is able to do so, we heartily encourage you to go out and explore your public lands.

3 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Public Land (apologies to Raymond Carver)”

  1. What a beautiful write up on the National Parks and Public Lands. I enjoyed reading it and again, I say, “you should write a book” on your travels as you write so well and easy toe read, unlike other peoples write ups on various items.

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