Public Lands History
For generations we've struggled with what we expect from our public land. It is a struggle that is common across the West, but is particularly acute in Idaho. More than two-thirds of Idaho is public land - much of it managed by the United States Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.
When our country was young, our expectations were fairly simple. Public land was viewed as a commodity. It was sold, traded or given away as an incentive for homesteaders, railroads, miners and others who would help settle the West. What the government couldn't dispose of, it kept and encouraged industry to produce timber, minerals and other raw materials vital to our young nation's economy. Recreation was an afterthought.
While the policy may seem misguided by today's standards, at the time, it made sense. The government was cash poor, but land rich. At one time or another, the federal government owned 80-percent of the nation's land. And, to early settlers, the resources seemed limitless.
Author and historian Wallace Stegner puts the policy in context:
But even as the early settlers were "subduing" the wilderness, some were trying to preserve it. Their efforts led to the creation of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. One of their arguments was that natural areas had psychological value. Frederick Law Olmsted, the developer of Central Park in New York City, wrote:
A century later, wilderness supporters used a similar argument on behalf of the Wilderness Act. Senator Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, said:
The Wilderness Bill and the laws that followed did more than protect pristine areas, they marked a fundamental shift in the management of public lands. "The old consensus was…that the national forests of the United States were to be wisely used for the benefit of society," says Boise State University political analyst John Freemuth.
With the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, new values, like recreation, were emphasized. And, for the first time, wilderness was protected simply because it was wild. "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed," wrote Wallace Stegner in 1960. "Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment."
To some though, the concept of wilderness is difficult to grasp. Wilderness designation places minerals, lumber and other raw materials out of reach. "There is a natural resource just being wasted," says Brad Jensen, co-owner of Jensen Lumber. "Before man was here, of course it was wasted because there was no use for it."
Jensen and others in the timber industry are acutely aware of the changes in public lands policy. Today, Jensen's mill near Montpelier has 35 full-time employees, about half the number that once worked there. He fears more reductions may be in store, not just for his mill, but for any business relying on public land. "I see a pretty bleak future for us as far as the type of business we're in. Farming would be the same situation. Mining would be the same situation," he says.
Even industry advocates recognize that the rules have changed and could change again. In 1997, a Republican Congress came within two votes of ending the Forest Service road building program. Policy analyst John Freemuth attributes the change in public lands policy to pressure from a public that is "green" and becoming "greener." "The West is in-filling," he says, "and the American public is increasingly weighing in on what they think ought to be done. And, since they're national lands, they have a voice."