The Gradual Selling of America the Beautiful

By VERLYN KLINKENBORG for The New York Times
February 9, 2013

Of the 2.27 billion acres that constitute the land area of the United States, a little less than 30 percent — about 640 million acres — belongs to you, the American citizen. It is land acquired over the years by treaty, conquest or purchase by the federal government acting on behalf of the people, and indisputably belongs to neither the states nor individuals. But in the last few decades no part of the American land mass has stirred greater controversy.

Almost four decades ago, a movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion tried to force the federal government to give up ownership of hundreds of millions of acres, mostly in the West. A similar fever gripped Western legislatures in the mid-1990s. George W. Bush’s Interior Department basically said no to the idea that the federal government should set aside large areas of federal land for permanent wilderness protection.

Those attitudes persist. Two years ago, the Republican House basically told Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that he could not spend a penny on a program that would merely study existing federal lands for possible wilderness protection at some point in the future. Mitt Romney said he did not fully grasp the “purpose” of the public lands in the course of suggesting that more of them be taken over by the states for oil and gas development. And in the last year, four states — Utah, Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona — have passed or have pending bills that would transfer millions of acres of federal land to state control. It is no surprise that the most vociferous opposition to the notion of public ownership is in the West, where there is a disproportionate amount of federal land — just as there is a disproportionate amount of natural resources, like oil, gas and timber, and a disproportionate amount of mountains, canyons and other grand scenery.

But the real threat to the public lands is not from Congress, or the state legislatures, whose laws would almost certainly be struck down as unconstitutional. The real and constant threat is more subtle, and more piecemeal. Only about a third of the 640 million acres of public land — national parks, permanently protected wilderness where only backpackers are allowed, national wildlife refuges — enjoy complete or high levels of protection against commercial development. Nearly all the rest is multiuse land, for logging, grazing, hard-rock mining, oil and gas development. Especially vulnerable are the 248 million acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

It is to this threat that President Obama must pay more attention than he has. Every president has adjusted the rate at which land is leased for exploitation and the rate at which it is protected, usually by speeding or slowing the rate at which the bureau grants oil and gas leases, but often by pushing Congress to designate new wilderness or using the powers granted under the American Antiquities Act of 1906 to unilaterally protect land when Congress will not act. Some presidents — like George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have done a good job protecting public lands; in contrast, President George W. Bush did his best to get the bureau into the speed-leasing business, vending leases, with virtually no profit to the government, for gas and oil drilling.

In a speech last week, President Clinton’s interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, presented a telling chart that showed how much land has been protected — by Congress and by the president — from the Reagan to the Obama presidency. So far, the current administration is dead last, and by several lengths. Mr. Clinton, for instance, protected 26.9 million acres, 9.3 million through executive action, over his two terms; a total of only 2.6 million acres has been protected so far under President Obama.

One reason is simply politics. Mr. Obama has tried to balance — too carefully, as he nearly always does — the interests of conservationists and Big Oil. As Mr. Babbitt pointed out, some six million acres were leased to the oil and gas industry during Mr. Obama’s first term — more than twice as much land as was set aside for protection. Mr. Obama has four years left, and judging by the tone he has taken since his new term began, we think he may well do a better job when it comes to conservation and land protection. Nominating Sally Jewell as his new interior secretary is a good first step. The toughest part of her Senate confirmation hearings will have to do with her attitude toward protecting and exploiting public lands. Congress has extraction fever of a rare severity, and it will be on full display.

Finding the right balance is always the hard part, especially in the West, where the urge to return to the exploitative ways of the past is strong. But the public lands belong now, as they always have, to the future. There are dozens of wrong ways to use them. But there is no such thing as a wrong way to protect them.

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