Political Scene

Our Public Lands
Larry Kennedy

The federal government manages more than 1.4 million square miles of land in the United States. Over 90 percent of these federal public lands are located in the western states. In some of these states, the proportion of federal control is quite high: Containing over 95,000 square miles of public lands, 87 percent of Nevada is managed by federal agencies — the highest proportion in the nation.

Along with the outer continental shelf, federal lands contain most of our fossil fuel resources and account for most of our domestic mineral production. Although the majority of federal lands is open to the development of renewable and nonrenewable energy and other resources, some is reserved for wilderness preservation, recreation or military activities. Other important commercial activities include logging and grazing, as well as wind and geothermal energy development.

How we manage public access and wilderness values is one of the most enduring policy questions.
A series of laws enacted in the 1970s requires that federal agencies ensure that no activity will unduly harm the environment and ecological health of the lands. Under the philosophy of multiple use, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service are responsible for managing most of the nation’s public lands open to both recreational and commercial uses. The multiple-use philosophy directs conservation of potentially renewable resources, with simultaneous use by a variety of activities. The BLM and Forest Service are also responsible for managing the wilderness and other restricted lands within their jurisdictions.

For these two agencies, striking a balance between competing public interests and meeting the criteria stipulated by environmental statutes is becoming increasingly difficult. The encroachment of urban development on public lands presents additional challenges, as the agencies struggle to address the threat posed to communities by wildfire even as they work to provide recreational access.

Congress and the Bush administration are considering changes to a number of policies that may influence recreational access and commercial development on our public lands for some time.

Management tools and challenges

The most powerful of the environmental statutes, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), requires that the federal government consider the environmental consequences of its actions. One of its most important provisions requires the preparation of environmental impact statements. The regulations adopted to enforce NEPA and other environmental laws not only increased the requirement for public involvement during the consideration of proposed activities, but also increased and changed the criteria that the agencies must evaluate.

The increasing involvement of the federal government in most aspects of daily life and commerce makes NEPA far-reaching in its authority. In the eastern states, the preponderance of private lands limits NEPA’s jurisdiction with respect to many land uses. In western states, however, the statute’s authority is virtually pervasive. The greater number of federally designated threatened and endangered species in the arid, wide open spaces — a consequence of the watersheds that have become increasingly diminished and isolated in the last 10,000 to 12,000 years — also tends to increase the criteria NEPA must address in the West.

The increasing cost, uncertainty and time required to provide permits for activities in compliance with these environmental statutes has led to calls for congressional action. Frustration with the slow pace of wildland fuel-reduction projects, backlogs in the renewal of grazing permits, and demands to accelerate oil and gas exploration, for example, have led to proposals that would limit the NEPA process in order to expedite these activities.

Perhaps the most comprehensive proposal under consideration, the administration’s “Healthy Forests” initiative (and parallel legislation) seeks to expedite forest fire fuel-reduction activities by excluding them from a number of NEPA requirements. One provision would limit to two the number of alternative actions that must be considered under the NEPA process. Other provisions would limit the legal right to appeal agency decisions to those entities that have participated in the public process, and restrict the time allowed for the filing of those appeals.

Environmental advocates warn that limiting the alternatives that must be considered under NEPA gives an agency or the proponents of an action the ability to manipulate the process. By carefully selecting the scope of a few alternatives, proponents might be able to devise a process that gives preference to their desired action. If initiatives such as the Healthy Forest proposal prove successful in streamlining the permitting process and expediting fuel-reduction projects, we can expect demands for additional NEPA exclusions regarding projects judged to be of critical public interest.

Access and wilderness

Policies being developed to regulate the use of off-highway vehicles and grant rights-of-way on public lands also have important implications for public access and resource development. The dramatic increase in the use and impact of all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and mountain bikes on public lands has brought together an unlikely coalition — ranging from ranchers to environmentalists — demanding action on the issue. Some federal agencies are considering restricting the use of off-highway vehicles to specific areas; others are considering excluding all vehicular access to some lands through wilderness designation or other regulatory means.

Early this year, the administration issued regulations governing the ability of state and local governments to assert ownership of roads and rights-of-way established on federal lands prior to 1976. Referred to as RS-2477 (for “revised statute 2477”), this rule featured prominently when the state of Utah and the federal government announced a settlement that reversed President Clinton’s executive order establishing 2.6 million acres of wilderness in Utah. Rights-of-way granted under the terms of this settlement could provide conduits for new natural gas pipelines and electrical transmission lines. Environmental advocates are unhappy with the reversal, and worry that a host of RS-2477 claims will generate a road network that subdivides withdrawn lands and limits the preservation afforded by wilderness designations.

Adding fuel to the fire, just a few weeks ago BLM determined that only those lands already identified as wilderness study areas (WSAs) would be considered for future wilderness designation. This action upset environmental activists, who assert that the mapping undertaken when most WSAs were identified 20 years ago was inadequate. Even so, the future of the existing WSAs is uncertain. In Nevada alone, despite recent legislation that finalized wilderness designations in the southern part of the state, the status of 83 WSAs remains to be determined. With Congress generally deadlocked on the issue of wilderness designations, policies regarding public access are sure to generate controversy, particularly as they exert important influences on energy and resource development.

How we manage public access and wilderness values is one of the most enduring policy questions — one which affects the management of both resource development and the wildland-urban interface. Not all of these debates will prove as controversial as, say, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. But the involvement of well-informed geoscientists will be critical to helping inform the discussions and provide possible solutions.

Kennedy is the fifth American Geological Institute Congressional Science Fellow, one of about 30 sponsored by science and engineering societies. Support for the AGI fellowship is provided by the AGI Foundation. Send e-mail to Kennedy at

The views presented here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Sen. Reid or the American Geological Institute and its member societies.

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