By moving forward with the land management bureau, the divided, racist American culture might find at least one platform that could unite us – public lands.
The bureau is responsible for 460 million surface acres of public land in America. The bureau is to be a stewart of this incalculable natural asset we as citizens own. Admittedly the bureau hasn’t always done a good job.
When I became national director of that BLM in 1997, people often referred to the three initials – BLM – as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. This less-than-complimentary label reflected decades of allowing the mining, oil, gas and livestock industries to exploit public land with significantly below private fair market prices and frequently failing to have private companies and individuals pay the lease or royalty payments due the public for the use of our land.
In 1976, near the end of a remarkable decade of federal legislation relating to civil rights and the environment (Wilderness Act, 1964; Civil Rights Act, 1964; the Voting Rights Act, 1965; National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) aka Clean Air Act, 1970; Clean Water Act, 1972; Endangered Species Act, 1973) Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). A remarkable record of legislative achievement in slightly more than a decade. How and why was this legislative powerhouse achieved?
I first worked in Washington as an intern for Sen. Frank Moss of Utah in the summer of 1969. Subsequently I worked for Sen. Birch Bayh, of Indiana, Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana (and the longest serving majority leader of the U.S. Senate) and Sen. Frank Church of Idaho. What I found in this time was each of these members, and majority of the other senators had experienced the Depression and World War II. From the horror they observed and experienced they shared two fundamental tenets.
First, all people regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, income or education should be given equal opportunity to participate in the political, governing process. Second, having seen the ravages of war and the poverty of the Depression, they understood the fundamental need to protect our environment, not just for present generations but, of even greater importance, for future generations.
Now most citizens know of the Wilderness Act through the Endangered Species Act, if for no other reason than the amount of time and expense resulting from litigation to interpret various environmental pieces of legislation. However, most are not familiar with FLPMA. It is the legislative charter for the Bureau of Land Management. It was meant to be a means by which the America’s more than 600 million acres (New York State is 85 million acres) of public land was to be managed. And, as the political wheel turned, there have been some good administrations for public lands (George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama). But none have approached the dismal, destructive, trumped record of the present Administration.
Why this background? Because I believe FLPMA and the other legislative charters for land management agencies could be one means of bringing America together. When one is lucky enough to be out on most public lands, Nature does not divide people on public lands by race, religion, ethnicity, education or place of birth. Most public lands, especially the bureau’s, are free.
When I was director, I envisioned a system of web-based cameras that school teachers and their students could access to see how their land was, and observe the progress of the seasons. My hope then, as now, was for present and future generations to take an ownership interest in our public lands.
As in 1997 and as now, our public land and the institutions that manage them are poorly funded with billions of dollars missing for essential infrastructure repairs. It is time we restart the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) which brought citizens of all walks of life together during the Depression to have jobs and repair America’s infrastructure and landscapes.
A 2020 CCC would employ potentially millions of our citizens, teach them marketable skills, integrated a divided America and repair our public lands. Yes, it would cost, but the dollars spent would pale in comparison to the terrible expense of violent riots and resulting destruction.
Let us start repairing and using our public lands as a first of many steps to reuniting our great country.
Patrick A. Shea is a Salt Lake City attorney and a retired research professor of biology at the University of Utah.