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Public Lands

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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

A Full Charge of Relevance

Public Lands Vision Expands Beyond Possibility, Probability

By Patty Limerick

In 1907, the first chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, traveled to Denver to speak at the Public Lands Convention. The creation of Forest Reserves by Pinchot and his close friend Theodore Roosevelt had riled up many Coloradans, by what they saw as the imposition of federal authority over lands that locals had come to feel were theirs to use. The Brown Theater in Denver was filled with holders of that opinion. Thus, when Pinchot stood before them, the audience jeered, booed, shouted, and, in every way they could think of, indicated that they disapproved of the man who stood before them.

When the Denver audience quieted down for a moment, Pinchot seized the opportunity. ‘If you fellows can stand me,’ he said, ‘I can stand you.’ With that, an audience, who had planned to specialize in heckling, shifted over to listening.

Over the decades, Pinchot's Denver Declaration still carries a full charge of relevance. Coloradans have made the holding of contentious meetings about the public lands into a state tradition. The lands held by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the branches of the military and the Department of Energy have become a kind of collective Rorshach test, as American citizens project upon them a stream of contesting desires, claims, ambitions, hopes, expectations and, of course, visions.

Over the century since Pinchot visited Denver, the range of interest groups who want something from the public lands has expanded past any predictability or probability. Despite periodic obituaries and memorial services for the extractive industries, advocates for grazing, mining, natural-gas production, and logging remain audible and active.

The activities performed on public lands and corralled under the category of ‘tourism and recreation’ have proliferated beyond any possible foresight or anticipation: hiking, backpacking, camping, horseback-riding, mountain-biking, rock-climbing, skiing (downhill, cross-country, back-country, extreme), snowboarding, snow-shoeing, snowmobiling, rafting, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, hunting, riding a variety of off-the-road vehicles, wildlife-watching, landscape-painting, photography, geocaching…and the author stopped here more out of vicarious exhaustion, than out of the conviction that this list was now complete and comprehensive!

Plus, the environmental laws of the 1970s brought a whole new set of regulations and requirements, involving the designation of wilderness, the preservation of species and habitat, and the consideration of the environmental act of any action (building of roads, diversion of water, extracting of resource, etc.) that might take place on the public lands. And, at the same time, old uses for the public lands have gained new currency and stature. An original justification for the creation of forest reserves was the crucial role played by forests as watersheds, holding the snowpack in the winter and releasing high-quality water to the farms, towns, and cities downstream; forgotten for a time, this function of the public lands has retaken center stage. For Colorado, headwaters to four great rivers, the appreciation of public lands as watersheds is of colossal importance.

With a breathtaking cascade of desires and uses aimed at the public lands, human beings who work as managers and caretakers of those lands have a particular expertise in the activity known as ‘being pulled in several different directions.’ The responsibilities of the Bureau of Land Management offer a fine case study of the process that has acquired the curious name, ‘mission creep’—the expansion of the agency's obligations and duties. The Federal Land Management and Policy Act of 1976 has several passages which, if they do not qualify as poetry, still are stunning pieces of creative writing, almost in the manner of Walt Whitman in scale and sprawl:

The public lands [will] be managed in a manner that will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archaeological values; that, where appropriate, will preserve and protect certain public lands in their natural condition; that will provide food and habitat for fish and wildlife and domestic animals; and that will provide for outdoor recreation and human occupancy and use. …
Management [will] be on the basis of multiple use and sustained yield… The term ‘multiple use’ means the management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people;… a combination of balanced and diverse resource uses that takes into account the long-term needs of future generations for renewable and non-renewable resources, including, but not limited to, recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural scenic, scientific and historical values; and harmonious and coordinated management of the various resources without permanent impairment of the productivity of the land and the quality of the environment with consideration being given to the combination of uses that will give the greatest economic return or the greatest unit output.

If you raced or jumped over these two passages, now go back and read them again, this time imagining that you are an employee who is reading her or his job description, calculating and recalculating your job as assignments layer upon assignments. When you finish this second reading, ask yourself if you do not begin to envy Hercules for the relative simplicity and manageability of his legendary Twelve Labors.

And then, as you wilt beneath these burdens, read on to another item from the Act of 1976, reminding you, as you perform all these tasks, to seek out and respond to ‘public involvement’:

The term ‘public involvement’ means the opportunity for participation by affected citizens in rule making, decision making, and planning with respect to the public lands, including public meetings or hearings held at locations near the affected lands, or advisory mechanisms, or such other procedures as may be necessary to provide public comment in a particular incident.’

Wouldn't even Hercules have drawn the line at this? Clean up the Augean stables in the course of one day, while public commentary unfolds over your shoulder and stakeholders point out the spots you've missed? Kill the Hydra, while also paying close and respectful attention to ‘public involvement’ that includes voices ardently raised on behalf of the right, held even by hydras, to hold on to their unsevered heads? Steal the girdle of the Amazon warrior queen, while observing and deferring to federal prohibitions of workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination?

Considerably easier to be a Greek Hero, really, than to be an employee of the Bureau of Land Management.
Mythic or prosaic, Olympian or terrestrial, the labors of public land managers are of enormous consequence to the state of Colorado. The BLM itself manages 8.4 million acres in Colorado. Altogether, one-third of the state's land—or 24.2 million acres—falls into the category of public land.

While our minds first travel, on hearing the words ‘public lands,’ to the territory under the authority of the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the BLM, another important category of public ownership involves the military: 182,000 acres for the U.S. Army; 60,000 acres for the Navy; and 27,000 for the Air Force. The sites of nuclear weapons production came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy, not the military. The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, pleasantly renamed the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, represents an interesting case study in the omnipresent historical phenomena called ‘unintended and ironic outcomes.’ Prohibiting human settlement or visitation is, after all, a commonly used technique to preserve original ecosystems and minimize their disturbance and disruption of original ecosystems.

When it comes to limiting human impacts on landscapes and wildlife habitats, the production and testing of military weapons turn out to have much to recommend them. Thus, Rocky Flats, as well as the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (where chemical weapons were produced) find themselves enjoying unlikely designations as wildlife refuges, as deer, eagles, hawks, and other charismatic megafauna pursue their destinies with an enviable indifference to the legacies left by the Cold War.

In truth, unintended outcomes and inadvertent consequences are thoroughly at home and have very deep roots in the public lands. One set of historians has called our attention to ‘boundary-setting’ as one of the most important undertakings in the history of the American West. The result of centuries of human action in the West is an astonishingly complex, spaghetti-like arrangement of lines and jurisdictions: borders between and among nations, states, reservations, counties, cities, irrigation and conservancy districts, utility service districts, along with plats of private property and assignments of territory to particular federal land and resource agencies. And one could make the case that this frenzy of line-drawing proved to be the activity that produced the most in the way of unintended outcomes and inadvertent consequences.

Why? Because all these units of governance and authority had to wrestle with substances and entities that crossed and transgressed these tangled lines of jurisdiction and authority. Consider any particular set of public lands bordering on private lands, and you will instantly notice that water, fire, airborne chemicals, wildlife, weeds, and a very diverse flock of human beings move across their boundaries, making it impossible for any one unit of governance to manage a system so dynamic, so fluid, and so complex.

And thus an undertaking that seems, on first glance, to be very pedestrian and very dreary—the undertaking known as ‘interagency cooperation’—turns out to be also very consequential. So consequential, in fact, that it might be worthwhile for a philanthropist to enlist the efforts of poets and advertising gurus, rhetoricians and linguists, to find a better term for a project that, in actual practice, demands from its participants, creativity, self-sacrifice, bravery and even heroism. At the very least, ‘interagency cooperation’ deserves to be the subject of compelling and popular novels and films. Not a single important challenge facing those who care about public lands sits congenially and compliantly within the borders of any particular jurisdiction, and the need to find a route to cooperation among competing agencies and interest groups is urgent—and Herculean.

And, once the philanthropist has mobilized the incentives and gotten results on livening up the idea of interagency cooperation, she or he can turn the team toward rehabilitating and revitalizing the word ‘public.’ When we discuss the public lands, historian Richard White pointed out our attention tends to focus on the word ‘lands.’ He urges us to redirect our attention to the word ‘public,’ and to the difficulty of assigning that word a definition that most citizens would support and affirm. ‘The concept of the public has rarely been at a lower ebb,’ White observes. ‘Americans can hardly hope to get a clear idea of what to do with the public lands when we are abandoning the very concept of public.’ We can wish that White has overstated this dilemma, but daily life delivers plenty of evidence that his assessment carries weight.

In a quest to place positive meaning in that essential word ‘public,’ it would not be hard to find more inspirational words to guide us than the declaration that Pinchot made to his hostile audience in Denver in 1907.

When Abraham Lincoln was giving his First Inaugural Address, he concluded his speech with the hope that Americans would be ‘touched, as surely they would be, by the better angels of our nature.’ Surely was quite a plucky adverb to use, at a time when the Union was the splitting apart and the very idea of civility was surrendering its meaning.

The context for Lincoln's First Inaugural Address acts as a first-rate ‘nostalgia blocker,’ reminding us that a search for the good old days when Americans resolved their differences with grace and generosity is unlikely to succeed. With nostalgia reduced, our habits of bemoaning the ways that polarization and lack of civility disrupt our public discussions begins to look a little doubtful. Rather than a temporary and recent affliction, crabbiness over the public domain registers more as a chronic condition, and a manageable condition at that.

In that cause, while we await the delayed arrival of our better angels, we are nonetheless positioned to stand, in public, before our opponents, adversaries, enemies, and critics and to greet them with that surprisingly stirring and uplifting declaration: ‘If you can stand me, I can stand you.’

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