THE PUBLIC’S LAND
JULY 13, 2000
Bruce Reichert, Host:
They are the lands no one wanted – left over after
the best was given to settlers, miners and the railroads.
When our country was young, it was rich in land, but poor
in terms of other resources.
The cash-strapped federal government used land as an incentive
– trading it to railroads, homesteaders and miners.
What was left, the government reluctantly kept and encouraged
industry to extract value from it.
Today though, we’re finding that the real value may be the
Outdoor Idaho explores our evolving relationship with the
Public land. For generations we’ve struggled with what that term means and with
what we expect from those lands.
Hi, I’m Bruce Reichert and welcome to Outdoor Idaho.
You know, there was a time when those expectations were
rather simple. Public lands were merely the source of timber, minerals and other
But as society changed, so did those expectations and today
we want more from our public lands. We want recreation; open spaces; solitude.
This change in attitude is being felt all across the west,
but few places are feeling it as intensely as here in Idaho.
Fly over the state of Idaho and what you are likely to see
is public land. More than two thirds of the state is owned by the public, much
of it managed by the federal government. Some look at this mass of federal land
and see vast untapped wealth – lumber, minerals and other raw materials. For
others, this land is a blessing – their escape, their solitude, the reason to
These mixed emotions about our public land are nothing new.
They are as old as the West itself. In 1804, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark
set out to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Their mission: find
minerals, raw materials and possible trade routes vital to the young nation.
They also sought to catalogue new plants and animals, in
part for potential value but also for the sheer joy of discovery.
Along the way they discovered natural wonders; free flowing
rivers, towering mountains and breathtaking vistas. Lewis found the land so
inspiring that in spite of hunger, cold, mosquitoes and other hardships, he
wrote of what would become Idaho, "It is a beautiful, fertile and picturesque
For the next century though, this picturesque country was
valued for little more than its economic potential.
The government began giving land to those who would help
settle it. Any one with a plow and ambition could get land for a homestead.
Railroads received thousands of square miles as an incentive to connect the
East to the West.
Immigrants headed west seeking their fortune from the land.
Miners probed the earth, searching for precious metals. Entire forests were
logged to provide timbers for the mine and fuel for the smelters. Paid hunters
shot wild game to feed the miners. Fields were plowed to help feed the growing
But others looked west and saw something else of value –
the picturesque country described by Lewis and Clark. They began trying to preserve
these unique landscapes. In 1864, they secured protection of Yosemite arguing
that natural areas have a psychological value.
"It is a scientific fact," wrote one supporter,
"the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of impressive character
is favorable to the health and vigor of men."
Less than a decade later, Yellowstone was made America’s
first national park – "a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit
of the people," according to the 1872 law.
But while some areas were being protected, others were being
developed and in some cases abused.
In 1891, Congress passed the Forest Reservation Act allowing
the president to create public reservations, limiting logging and other private
uses. During the next 15 years more than 100-million acres of public land, much
of it in the West was "reserved," providing the basis for today’s
Business interests were outraged, and in 1907 convinced
congress to exempt Idaho and five other Western states.
But just before signing the bill, President Teddy Roosevelt
and the chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot set aside another 16-million
acres. Their "land grab," as some called it, gave the country some
150-million acres of national forests, about the size of Idaho, Washington and
To Pinchot, the national forest system was an investment
to be devoted to its most productive use, for the permanent good of the whole
people. For the next several decades that meant logging, mining and grazing,
and it led to a nation-wide effort to harness America’s rivers to produce power
and irrigate crops.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt:
This is an engineering victory of the first order. Another great achievement
of American resourcefulness, American skill and American determination. And
that is why I have the right to once more to congratulate you who have built
Boulder Dam, and on behalf of the nation to say to you, well done.
Such victories occurred across the country. But in the 1950’s, enthusiasm faded
when plans were made to dam the Green River at Echo Park and the Colorado River
at Glen Canyon.
Whether roaring and brawling against steep canyon walls or moving with a barely
discernible ripple, the Colorado pushes with solemn force through cataract and
canyon, becoming the silt-laden, untamed Rio Colorado of the desert Southwest
– a river rich in beauty, rich in potential.
Budding environment groups fought the dams arguing that they would destroy unique
Western landmarks. Echo Park was stopped, but in 1956 work began on Glen Canyon.
At 11:30 on the morning of October 15th 1956, President Dwight D.
Eisenhower, from the White House, triggered a blast far smaller than the atomic
explosions now nearly so commonplace, but a blast that significantly affects
nearly one-fifth of our nation’s land area. Jarring the once silent Southwestern
desert land, the blast sent rocks tumbling 700 feet into the muddy Colorado
at the spot where men will control that river’s flow.
As construction crews controlled the Colorado, newly formed environment groups
vowed not to lose again and began pushing for greater protection for public
Senator Frank Church, D-Idaho:
If we don’t act now while we still have some wildlife and wild lands left, the
whole country will become a cage. But if the Wilderness Bill becomes law, we
will have preserved for now and for generations yet unborn, areas of unspoiled,
pristine wilderness, open to the considerate use and enjoyment of nature lovers
and hikers and mountain climbers, hunters and fishermen and of all those who
find in high and lowly places, a refreshment of the spirit and life’s closest
communion with God.
In the years that followed the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, a whole
host of environmental programs were proposed.
President Lyndon B. Johnson:
For over three centuries the beauty of America has sustained our spirit and
has enlarged our vision. We must act now to protect this heritage. We must make
a massive effort to save the countryside and to establish as a green legacy
for tomorrow, more large and small parks, more seashores and open spaces than
have been created during any other period in our national history.
That "green legacy" eventually included protection of endangered species,
laws aimed at curbing water and air pollution and passage of the Wild and Scenic
Cecil Andrus, former Interior Secretary:
Now we’ve consumed most of the resources, so now when we talk about an endangered
species or a wild and scenic river, we’re talking about protecting the last
remnant of what once was a vast abundance.
But the Wilderness Act and the laws that followed did more than protect pristine
places. They marked a fundamental shift in the management of public lands.
John Freemuth, Political Scientist:
The old consensus was more or less on the non-park lands that the national forests
of the United States were to be wisely used for the benefit of society. Oh,
I think that lasted by and large up until the sixties and the Wilderness Act,
more cutting of timber, more urbanized America and new values hitting into the
pot and stirring it up.
For rural America and those who rely on public lands for a living, the change
has been difficult. Communities have been rocked as sawmills have closed due
to a decline in timber supply. Since 1975, the amount of timber cut from public
land has been reduced by nearly 75 %.
Joe Hinson, Natural Resource Consultant:
We’ve seen it here in Idaho where we’ve had a number of mills close as you would
predict and there have been job losses associated with that. Other mills have
come to rely more heavily on private lands or on land managed by the state of
Idaho. And ultimately there will be some equilibrium between the timber that’s
available and the mill capacity to use it. We’re not there yet but I suspect
we will be within 3 to 5 years perhaps.
Jensen Lumber Company in Southeastern Idaho has seen its share of cuts. Today
the mill has 35 full time employees, about half the number that once worked
Brad Jensen, Jensen Lumber Company:
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. Any
time you want to return the world back to the way it was a hundred years ago,
it ain’t going to work, you know. There’s too many people. You can’t take the
dams out of the river. You need the electricity. I think almost all wood will
probably be imported. I believe that it will be imported from Canada and Russia
and other countries.
The mining industry, once the mainstay of the West’s economy, has also been
affected. Because of the cost and uncertainty due to environmental regulations,
some companies are heading overseas.
Larry Raymond, Smoky Canyon Mine:
Many of those other countries have basically the same regulations that we have,
but when you apply for a permit you have a confidence level that you're going
to be able to get that permit and you're going to be able to operate.
Here, you don’t have the confidence level. You have that
uncertainty always there about whether things are going to be processed, and
when they will be processed. What will come along next that will delay and cause
you problems and difficulties.
Even the cowboy, the almost mythical character of the old West, is being forced
to change. New rules limit grazing on public lands. And the cowboys have little
doubt who is to blame.
Jay Cox, Rancher:
What really burns me is this has nothing to do with what’s happening to Mother
Earth. It’s politics. It’s BLM playing games with environmental groups to make
everybody else in the world happy. That’s what’s going on.
As ranchers, miners, loggers have become more frustrated, they’ve become more
active in causes like the Sagebrush Rebellion. At rallies like this one in 1995,
they urged the federal government to turn its land over to the states and accused
the feds of waging a war on the West.
Lt. Governor Butch Otter:
I ask you today how can we trust our federal government to make peace with our
common foreign enemies when it makes war on our own people?
Those who analyze public lands policy can understand the frustrations expressed
at rallies like this one, but they point out if it hadn’t been for the federal
government, the West wouldn’t exist.
We forget that if it wasn’t for the federal government, the West wouldn’t have
been developed. Quite frankly I would argue to anybody that by and large the
public lands of the United States have been a policy success over the last 100
years. Could things be done differently or better, of course. But to fed bash
all of the time as if it’s the federal government that’s caused all this is
to me nonsensical. Look at all the benefits this has provided people in quality
of life, in spectacular areas protected, in the production of commodities, all
of those sorts of things. It’s been a success and I think most people that look
at it over 100 years would say so.
Still, the federal government presents an inviting target. And in the closing
months of the Clinton administration, critics got some new ammunition when the
Forest Service proposed banning road building on some 43-million acres of roadless
areas, 9-million of those acres in Idaho.
Jim Lyons, US Dept. of Agriculture:
Roads are the greatest source of sedimentation and erosion on national forest
landscapes. And given our inability to maintain the road system, we work against
ourselves in trying to protect salmon in a place like this and yet building
roads into roadless areas. How can we try to secure the resources to improve
watersheds yet propose to build roads in roadless areas? Once you enter a roadless
area you have permanently changed its character.
Bill LeVere, Sawtooth National Forest:
I think what’s triggering this is that as we’ve developed more and more of the
public lands, we’re seeing less and less roadless areas out there. And as something
becomes scarcer, it becomes more valuable and I think we’ve kind of hit that
saturation point with the public that they truly realize that roadlessness in
itself has a value. It is becoming scarce here on the public lands and that
we need to protect it.
But critics say the proposal ignores other values – the value of timber that
won’t be cut.
There’s a natural resource just being wasted. Before man was here there was
no use for it. Nobody needed it.
Although the proposal doesn’t prevent logging in roadless areas, it does prohibit
road building. Helicopter logging is still an option. But critics say the policy
will effectively end logging in roadless areas, and if logging stops, jobs disappear.
The Forest Service says the effect will be minimal, less than a thousand jobs
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho:
This roadless moratorium is going to have a huge impact on small communities
throughout Idaho. We’ve already had over the years a huge impact as we’ve seen
lumber mills closed throughout the state. The 2nd district used to
have a significant number of mills in it but it doesn’t any more.
Brad Jensen is one who could be affected. The Forest Service estimates that
up to a dozen jobs would be lost in the Caribou National Forest. Most of those
cuts would probably come at his mill near Montpelier.
I don’t know what else I’d do. It’s all I know how to do. Other than cooking
hamburgers for the tourists, there really isn’t anything else left for us to
The Forest Service says the area’s economy is strong and displaced workers could
find jobs elsewhere. For example, many of the workers could go into the phosphate
mining industry but officials there say that business would also be affected.
The phosphate in this mine should last until 2007. After
that the company will try to move operations to another lease inside a roadless
The biggest problem that we have is the uncertainty that it introduces. As you
talk to people in the Forest Service about it, they say they feel that we’ll
be able to work things out. But, as of this moment there will be no new roads
and no reconstruction of roads. And so for someone to come along and say, "Well,
we think we can interpret that so it will be positive for you," we can’t
go with that because if we get two or three years down the road and someone
interprets it differently then it’s too late for us to do something about it
and get ready to go somewhere else.
Despite the uncertainty caused by the roadless initiative, most environmental
groups say it’s worth it. Had the proposal been in effect five years ago, areas
like the Deadwood River might never have been marked for a timber sale.
John McCarthy, Idaho Conservation League:
You look at these trees and you just think why do they have to be cut? So somebody
can make a buck. Why does it have to be here in the last great place close to
the capital city? It’s on a paved road. Anybody can drive up here from Boise
in an hour and a half, be up on this trail, be down along the river and be in
an old growth forest that is just really remarkable because it’s so rare.
I think public opinion is not overwhelming but is very strong
in protecting an area like Deadwood for its recreational values, its wildlife
values, for all the things that people want to use the forest for. But if Boise
National Forest wouldn’t change how they do business, they’re doing the same
old thing that they have always done which is cut big trees to make money. So
that’s to me the exact classic example of why we need a national policy. Boise
National Forest, for internal political reasons, for Idaho political reasons,
for whatever reason, can’t make the jump to try and protect the last best place
close to the capital city so I think we’ve got to take it out of their hands
and have a national policy that would do it.
But the national policy might not stop logging in places like Deadwood. That
concerns other environmentalists who say the policy doesn’t go far enough. They
want all logging on public lands stopped.
Mathew Jacobson, Heritage Forests Campaign:
I think that the opposition to logging on public lands has to do with the fact
that any time you give this agency any discretion, they use it to log as much
as they possibly can. And I think that the driving force has been the behavior
of the agency more than it is about not logging. If you give them any leeway
to log anything, they want to log everything. Then you just have to take the
tool away from them.
For public policy analysts the debate over the roadless initiative illustrates
the difficulty of reaching agreement on public lands policy. The debate often
turns into an emotional rather than an intellectual argument.
Jay O’Laughlin, Policy Analyst:
The question of what to do with our public lands is always a question of values
because everybody expects something different from these lands. Everybody has
a different set of expectations and aspirations about what these public lands
are for. And resolving that is a political question of a high and difficult
This volcanic landscape is just one illustration of those competing values.
President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Craters of the Moon
a National Monument in 1924. Since then other presidential orders have expanded
the size of the monument. But none expanded the monument like a proposal by
the Clinton administration which adds about 400-thousand acres to the 54-thousand
acre monument. Another quarter-million acres of grassland would become part
of a Great Rift National Monument.
Jim Morris, Craters of the Moon:
The origins of the proclamation authority comes from the 1906 Antiquities Act
which provides an avenue for the president to take action to protect areas of
scientific interest. And so that’s how this park was first established. It was
definitely recognized as this scientifically interesting area unlike any known
in North America. It’s just back in 1920 they really didn’t understand the breadth
of this area, that it really is part of a system that we now know as the Great
But opponents call it another federal land grab, part of a continuing trend
to restrict public access. It’s a trend they see repeated across the country,
including Yellowstone National Park where snowmobiles could be banned because
of conflicts with wildlife and non-motorized recreation.
Adena Cook, Blue Ribbon Coalition:
We have national parks that are recognized for special scenic features and these
features are unique in the whole country. And we do have to be very careful
and maintain those features so that they can continue unimpaired into the future.
But we also have to get people there. Parks are no good unless people can enjoy
So are these changes and efforts as some argue, to lock up public lands? Or,
are they a recognition of the importance of these areas? Analysts say it might
be a little bit of both, and a sign that the West is growing up.
The West is infilling now, people with different values. And the American public
is increasingly weighing in what they think ought to be done. And since they’re
national lands, they have a voice. But no, I don’t think there’s any philosophical
war on the West. People feel beleaguered and I understand that because of some
of these policies, but things change.
They say that change is one of the constants of life and that’s certainly been
true with the public’s land. A hundred years ago, public lands were mere commodities.
What the federal government couldn’t sell, trade or give away, it reluctantly
kept and encouraged industry to extract value from it. But today, a lot of folks
believe that the real value may be in the land itself.
Thanks for watching. We’ll see you next time.