Debates over how America’s public lands should be managed are as old as the system itself, dating back to the early 1900s when President Teddy Roosevelt pioneered our current system. Disagreements have often centered on the balance between energy or resource development and protecting wild places for recreation and wildlife. At Patagonia, we’ve fought for decades to defend our most treasured wild places—those areas with exceptional characteristics that provide the greatest value when simply left untouched. In countless battles over the years, we’ve supported grassroots groups and local people, all united by the fundamental idea that our federal public lands belong to all Americans and represent a core part of our country’s heritage.
The fact is, a resounding majority of Americans support protection of our public lands. In a 2016 Harvard Kennedy School study, more than 93% of respondents across the country said it’s important that historical sites, public lands and national parks be protected for current and future generations.
But recently, ideas are resurfacing that seek to undermine our public lands. These efforts use misleading appeals for “states’ rights” and flawed economic information to remove protections from some of our most special places in order to extract short-term profit. Backed by powerful fossil fuel and extractive industry interests, this systematic, well-organized and multifaceted movement began at the state level and now enjoys support at the highest level of government.
If these ideas take hold, we could lose one of America’s most unique and enduring traditions. This isn’t a political issue, it’s a matter of keeping the great promise of this country for our children and grandchildren. Attempts to undermine America’s tradition of balanced stewardship are fundamentally out of step with popular sentiment favoring protections for public lands, the enormous popularity of recreation on public lands and the huge economy supported as a result—among many other factors.
Right now, a broad coalition of sportsmen’s organizations, small local businesses, the entire outdoor industry, national and grassroots conservation groups and individuals all over the country are speaking up in defense of America’s public lands heritage for all citizens now and in the future.
We all have a stake in the future of our public lands, and we need everyone to get involved. I hope this article helps shed light on some key concepts about public lands and what it means to manage them for the greatest possible benefit for all Americans.
Who owns federal public lands?
You do. Federal public lands encompassing 640 million acres spread across all 50 states are owned by every American. These lands are managed by professional land managers in several federal agencies for our direct benefit and the benefit of all future generations—a responsibility known as stewardship. This is in contrast to state-owned lands, which can be sold at any time to the highest bidder. Historically, when states have been entrusted with public lands by the federal government, many have had no problem with selling those lands for a profit to private corporations and developers. In fact, to date, states have sold 70% of the public trust lands placed under their control to the highest bidder.
Why should I care about public lands?
As public lands owners, we all have a stake in their future. This system represents one of our country’s most unique and enduring traditions: the bold idea that our country’s heritage does not solely belong to current citizens, but to all future generations as well. Our federal lands system includes forests, lakes, rivers and streams, deserts, mountains, plains, wetlands and more.
I think Teddy Roosevelt put it well: “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”
How are our public lands managed?
On behalf of all American citizens, the U.S. government bears responsibility for stewardship of our federal public lands—which includes collecting public and scientific input under processes defined by the law to make decisions about what lands are used for what purposes. As enshrined in our laws and American traditions dating back to the early twentieth century, the solemn concept of stewardship means considering long-term benefits not only for all Americans now, but for all future generations as well.
For example, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) official mission is “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
While some federal lands may be appropriate for development, other areas with pristine or vulnerable ecosystems popular with millions of Americans for recreation should receive strong protection. Put simply, many places simply provide the greatest overall value when threats of environmental degradation are not present.
Does protecting public lands help the economy or hurt it?
Not only do protected public lands power an $887 million outdoor economy and support 7.6 million jobs, but protected areas also significantly boost the economies of communities nearby. Studies show that rural areas in the West close to protected federal lands perform better on average than areas without protected federal lands in a variety of economic measures, including per capita income and employment.
About Pali Institute.
At Pali Institute our mission is to introduce experiential education to young people by providing progressive learning experiences that extend far beyond classroom walls. Through our innovative curriculum and professional outdoor staff, students will experience the thrill of seeing, touching and learning about the world around them. At Pali Institute, we bring textbooks to life!