Public Lands History

Early LoggingFor 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:

"The New World was such a blinding opportunity to Europeans, and lay there so temptingly, like an unlocked treasure house with the watchman sleeping, that nobody thought of limits, nobody thought of preservation, until generations of living in America and "breaking" its wilderness had taught us to know it, and knowing it had taught us to love it, and loving it had taught us to question what we were doing to it.

The seventeenth-century settlers did not look on wilderness with the eyes of a 1990 Sierra Club backpacker. Our wilderness is safe, theirs was not. Ours is islands in a tamed continent, theirs was one vast wild, totally unknown, prowled by God-knew-what wild beasts and wild men. In New England they also feared it as the trysting place of witches and devils. Even without devils, the struggle to survive fully occupied the first generation or two, and survival meant, in God's word, "subduing" the wild Earth. Nobody questioned the value of that effort. Civilization was good; wilderness was what had to be subdued to create the human habitations that looked like progress and triumph even when they were only huts in a stump field."

But even as the early settlers were "subduing" the wilderness, some were trying toTeddy Rosevelt 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:

"It is a scientific fact, that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character…is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect…The want of such occasional recreation where men and women are habitually pressed by their business or household cares often results in a class of disorders the characteristic quality of which is mental disability, sometimes taking the severe forms of softening of the brain, paralysis, palsy, monomania, or insanity…"

A century later, wilderness supporters used a similar argument on behalf of the Wilderness Act. Senator Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, said:

"If we don't act now while we still have some wildlife and wild lands left, the whole country will become a cage…(The Wilderness Act will) set up in our national forests wilderness preserves for the future where people who seek to escape the incessant crowd can find solitude in a sanctuary far removed from the banality of beer ads and cigarette commercials."

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."


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