Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE May1997

Federal Lands and the Geosciences

The geosciences have long played an important role in the development and management of the nation's public lands. For much of that time, the principle geoscientific contribution has been identifying and assessing natural resources, particularly mineral and water resources.

In recent years, however, that traditional role has been de-emphasized as land managers shift to an ecosystem management approach. This shift represents both an opportunity and a challenge for geoscientists, who must demonstrate anew to policy-makers the value and relevance of their work. We face this challenge on the state and local levels and in the federal arena.

Uncle Sam's Turf

Over time, federal public lands included as much as 1.7 billion of the nation's 2.3 billion acres. The federal government has gradually relinquished control of 1.1 billion of that expanse to states, tribes, and individual citizens. Federal public lands, however, still constitute 625 million acres, or 28 percent of the United States.

The majority of these lands are managed by the Department of the Interior through its Bureau of Land Management (266 million acres), Fish and Wildlife Service (87.5 million acres), and National Park Service (78 million acres). The U.S. Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture oversees 191 million acres. The remaining federal lands are controlled by defense-related agencies.

Federal lands have always been located primarily in the "west," although the definition of what constitutes western land has changed over time. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 ceded title to all lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi from the original 13 states, giving land and hence influence to a central government newly empowered by the Constitution.

For the next century, western expansion was accompanied by legislation designed to encourage settlement and development of newly acquired lands. One law from that period still on the books is the Mining Law of 1872, which codified the already common practice of staking ownership to mining claims. By the end of the 19th century, however, growing concern about over-expansion and the loss of pristine areas had led to the establishment of the first national parks and wildlife refuges and subsequent passage of the 1906 Antiquities Act barring private ownership of artifacts taken from public lands.

The Politics of Longitude

The tension between the development of resources and the preservation of pristine areas has intensified in recent years. Political debate over land-use policy tends to have a west vs. east flavor rather than breaking along party lines. History and geography have combined to create this longitudinal divide.

Mining law reform is a good example. Eastern Republicans such as Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) have opposed legislation introduced by western Republicans such as House Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska). Politicians from the more populous east (often joined by their West Coast colleagues) tend to view federal public land as communal property, whereas intermontane westerners see it as land held in common waiting for a specific need to be found for the use of it.

Over the past 30 years, preservationists have steadily gained ground. The amount of federal land available for mining declined from 75 percent in 1968 to just under 30 percent in 1994.

To see the preservation vs. development tension, consider the highly contentious debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Alaskan delegation in Congress and many othersview this wilderness as empty space with a potential billion-plus-barrel oil reservoir beneath it, but Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and environmentalists refer to this same piece of land as the "American Serengetti" and last stretch of pristine arctic coast.

Both groups can point to scientific information that supports their views -- a reminder that science does not and cannot control land-use policy. But science can inform the debate. Policy-makers, however, will chose which scientific information they value as the foundation for their decisions.

Breaking with the Past

The traditional role for geologists with respect to public lands has been conducting resource assessments for minerals and hydrocarbons. These assessments are a required part of every forest management plan prepared by the Forest Service and every range management plan produced by the Bureau of Land Management.

Policy-makers saw the need for such assessments as a security issue -- ensuring adequate national reserves of oil and strategic minerals. Since the end of the Cold War, however, Washington has progressively lost interest in this issue. Despite concern raised over U.S. dependence on unstable foreign sources of oil and minerals, cheap gasoline and a perceived abundance of most minerals combined to push energy issues off the collective political radar screen in the recent election.

Protection of the environment, however, was a pillar of President Clinton's successful re-election campaign. The administration's much- touted accomplishments included two high-profile efforts to stop mining operations in Utah and Montana.

No wonder the traditional resource role of the geosciences has become suspect, and budgets have been slashed for conducting such assessments. Although the Wilderness Act of 1964 specifies that all lands withdrawn from use under the act are to be periodically surveyed for valuable minerals, such studies are rare because they are perceived as the first step toward future development. The exception is the collection of minerals data associated with cleanup of abandoned mine lands, an activity directly tied to environmental priorities.

Informing Ecosystem Management

The marginalization of geologists' traditional resource assessment role has been accompanied by a shift toward using ecosystems as the basis for managing federal lands. The environmental sensibilities of the Clinton administration are reflected in the decision to pursue ecosystem management as the principal land-use policy tool for federal lands.

Scientific input focuses necessarily on biologic resources, but geology and hydrology are critical to understanding why the biological resources are where they are and how the ecosystem functions. With nonrenewable resource assessments increasingly devalued, geoscientists must convince policy-makers of the broader utility of the information they provide.

The inclusion of the former National Biological Service in the U.S. Geological Survey has been seen by some as a threat to that agency, but this merger may be the best chance yet to educate biologists and policy-makers alike about the value of what geoscience can contribute to the new style of land management. As the importance of geoscientific information to understanding ecosystem processes becomes recognized, geoscientists may again play a central role in supporting public land-use policy. Perhaps this greater awareness will in turn lead to a new recognition of the ongoing need for resource asssessment, allowing our profession to continue contributing to the many uses of the nation's public lands.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

For more information, visit the Government Affairs homepage.

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