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Achieving the potential of federal lands

This essay was first published in Different Drummer (see in 1995. As Daniel Kemmis remarks in This Sovereign Land (Island Press, 2001) "sooner or later, something analogous to welfare reform will occur in the arena of public lands and resource management."

The main problem with public-land management today is that the people who set the goal or direction for management are different from the people who make the decisions about management. There are historical reasons for our current system, which was developed over several generations in order to control the greed of private enterprise. Today, it is increasingly obvious that sound and cost-effective stewardship cannot result from control alone. (As John McKnight observed, we may have reached the limits of institutional problem-solving.) There must be empowerment. A well-designed program of stewardship leasing could unite goals with on-the-ground decisions and empower good managers to improve these lands.

Agencies jealously guard their shrinking decision-making prerogatives, while warring interest groups supply the goals and directions. The federal rule of thumb is that if a decision satisfies anyone, something must be wrong with it. Agency morale is poor, and a good deal of confusion has set in. There seems to be little direct incentive, other than shame, for positive change.

Because of the institutionalized conflict of which our current public-land management largely consists, we are effectively deprived of the enormous talents and creative energy of thousands of talented people who have demonstrable expertise in land stewardship, both outside and inside the federal agencies. Our talents are not well matched with our opportunities on public land, and this is a great weakness.

Millions of acres of forest and rangeland are in bad shape because of a combination of mismanagement, overuse, underuse, and unintended consequences. While many people understand this, habits are so powerful that we continually try to fix the blame on environmentalists, loggers, ranchers, or agencies, rather than on the situation that pits them against each other in the first place. We cannot afford this.

Yet there are alternatives. Marion Clawson, who directed the Bureau of Land Management in the 1950s, described five alternatives for the public lands in 1983:

  1. All or most of the present federal lands could be retained in federal ownership, but strenuous efforts would have to be made to improve their management, including more concern for the costs and returns from such ownership or management.

  • All, or a large part, of the present federal lands could be turned over to the states, free or on payment of some price, and the further management or disposal of the lands could be determined by the states.

  • All, or a major part, of the present federal lands could be sold to private individuals, corporations, and groups or associations, under terms which would be established in the enabling legislation.

  • All, or a major part, of the present federal land area could be transferred to public or mixed public-private corporations, to be managed as decided upon by those corporations, but according to terms of enabling legislation.

  • Long-term leasing of federal lands could be greatly extended, not only for mineral leasing as at present, but also for other commercial uses and for conservation or preservation purposes as well.

Now is an excellent time to reconsider Clawson's alternatives (see table). Long-term leasing, which would maintain federal ownership and ultimate control, as well as unite goals and directions with management, is worthy of renewed and serious consideration.

Alternative Are goal and management united? Will the agencies and the public accept it?
1. Present; try harder No How much longer?
2. To states No No
3. Sale Yes No
4. Public-Private Yes Unlikely
5. Long-term Leasing Yes Perhaps

Distribution of Leases

Leases could require that:

  1. Some fair return be provided for the federal government--determined not by a formula, but by an actual market on a specific parcel; and

  • The public's general interest in the health, productivity, and diversity of the land should prevail--not just on designated critical areas, but everywhere.

Long-term leases could be granted on the basis of competitive auction or bid. The size and duration of leases, and their boundaries, would have to be determined in cooperation with the agencies. Leases would:

  • Allow leaseholders to make management decisions--for example, when, where, and for how long to graze livestock, and when, where, and how much timber to harvest.

  • Give the leaseholder prerogative to set specific landscape goals, within broad general limits;

  • Allow the leaseholder to grant permits, licenses, contracts, or subleases;

  • Give successful leaseholders the option to meet a rival bid when the lease is up for renewal.

Leasing would not alter existing wilderness protection and would be compatible with most other current restrictions on federal lands.

If land is so badly deteriorated that it will not turn a profit over the term of the lease, a lease might be let at a negative rate--but let the market decide. Some people know how to recover deteriorated land and make it pay. (By and large, these are not large corporations.) If we make large advance appropriations to restore deteriorated forests or rangeland, with no rewards for results, the only certainty is that the money will be spent.

Long-term leasing could put all of the interest groups in the driver's seat. An environmental organization, a logging company, a grazing association, an Indian tribe, a university resource department, a community-based forestry cooperative, a state wildlife department, and a county government might each manage adjacent watersheds under long-term leases, all working with the Forest Service or other agency to achieve regional goals. No amount of talk could accomplish as much.

Some may object that long-term leasing, because of the costs of bonding, paying the leases, and doing the work, would unduly favor those interests with economic clout. They may also object that at present there are not enough competent and committed stewardship organizations to take over the management of the federal lands from the agencies.

A gradually expanding system of long-term leasing could be crafted to meet these reasonable objections. Agencies could be allowed, not required, to lease their land. Such a system could probably be integrated into the current agency planning processes--and would provide well-grounded incentives for changes to these processes. The main difficulties would be in getting started.

Public access to the lands, particularly nonvehicular access, would remain. Uses such as firewood cutting and off-road vehicles would be at the discretion of the leaseholder, who would also monitor violations and have the prerogative to collect fees for such uses. Fire control would be the responsibility of the leaseholder.

Leaseholders in a region may standardize their handling of uses such as firewood cutting, or subleases for recreation or grazing, and to cooperate on matters such as fire control or road maintenance. Regional oversight committees of leaseholders could be structured to include a local component. The agencies could serve as facilitators and consultants as well as ecological monitors and contract administrators, and of course would continue to manage those federal lands not under lease.

Under long-term leasing we could expect to see some of the energy now expended on rhetoric and legal action turned instead to developing good management practices on the land. Conservation organizations, for example, may find that their ability to recruit new members and financial support is broadened and enhanced by a long-term lease on some federal land, and some hands-on participation in actual management.

Leasing would not automatically favor big companies, because leasing would put a premium on know-how, and on knowing what to do with a pair of hands, which in turn could leverage the necessary capital. Depending on the size of the leases, set-asides for small businesses may not even be required.

Simple Terms, Simple Monitoring

We should not let the controversies of the last several decades obscure for us the basic goal of stewardship, which lay behind the withdrawal of the forest reserves in the 1890s and early 1900s: conservation of resources for future generations. Since we cannot know what resources will be valuable in the distant future (who in 1900 predicted today's demand for outdoor wilderness recreation?), the best bet is to opt for a healthy landscape that provides for our present needs and has a good chance of providing for future needs--in other words, prudent stewardship.

Under present policy, specific levels of outputs such as board feet, wildlife populations, streambank profiles, aesthetics, or various theories of pre-European conditions have constituted the immediate (and mostly conflicting) aims of federal management. Research and changing preferences in these matters will always outrun regulation, and it is doubtful that these sorts of conflicting aims, however "optimized," can ever constitute prudent stewardship. Stewardship is a political, moral, and management activity that we have mistakenly tried to turn over to scientific experts.

Simple ecological tests, such as runoff, soil erosion, and primary production of plant matter and/or biomass, combined with a rough estimate of successional trend, would help to determine the trend in any location. Monitoring would thus be based partly on fundamental ecosystem processes or background functions, rather than single species, or relations between species.

By contrast, federal laws and injunctions now require an attempt to manage populations of particular vertebrate species on the basis of incomplete knowledge. When the salmon decline, we wait till it is too late to save them and then spend millions making little difference.

Impartial and independent juries could be impaneled to help the agency judge performance on leases. In combination with measured factors such as water cycle, biomass, and photosynthetic activity, a jury would be influenced, rightly, by nonmeasurable factors such as the honesty of intent of a leaseholder. As in criminal matters, juries are much better than bureaucracies in making independent judgments that involve both practical and moral matters.

A worthwhile experiment might get the benefit of the doubt, whereas a purely commercial operation with short-haul values would tend not to impress most juries, whose instructions would be to look out for the long-term future interest of the public. Especially in comparison with a large federal agency, an independent jury system could be highly flexible--valuable new thinking would be easily assimilated by juries of independent people, and juries would be much less subject to institutional biases, fads, or orthodoxies.

Such monitoring could be easily administered, relatively cheap, and highly effective. It would be entirely consistent with the basic mission of the agencies. Rapidly advancing technology such as satellite imaging, remote sensing, and automated water-quality testing could be used whenever practical. For areas containing merchantable timber, traditional timber cruising may be more practical than measurements of biomass or primary plant production--but the goal of monitoring would be to gauge health, not commodity value, aesthetic value, or other use-values that change all the time.

Such a monitoring system would not be perfect, but it would not need to be perfect to be a substantial improvement over the current situation. If a lease is not trending or scoring well enough according to ecological monitoring, or according to a jury's opinion, cancel it or assess penalties. Let's give discounts for outstanding improvements.

Transition to Leasing

Existing grazing permits should not be allowed to interfere with the auction of leases. There are a number of possibilities for lessening the trauma here. Advance registration of bidders on leases would provide opportunities for grazing permittees to either organize among themselves in order to bid, perhaps in cooperation with forestry and recreation interests, or to negotiate with prospective bidders for grazing subleases.

The peculiar and sensitive relations between public and private land in these matters--in particular the capitalization of federal grazing permits in commensurate property--may make it desirable or necessary to institute some sort of local preference, such as an initial discount in the lease price for continuation of presently permitted grazing. Convenience and local knowledge will in any case generally favor such continuations.

In the case of intermingled BLM lands, particularly where boundaries are unfenced, owners of adjacent private land would have a clear economic advantage in securing leases or subleases for grazing. Though some leasing may be based upon enmity or nuisance, these motives would be insufficient to carry out a stewardship lease, and would not wear very well in the hot sun and cold wind, far from the office.

Local discounts might constitute favoritism by the agencies to grazing permittees. Even with discounts, however, competitive leasing would create incentives for improved management--and this, rather than the minuscule savings from competitive bidding, is the great need on our public rangelands. Leasing would also be likely to favor a more mobile kind of livestock management, with greater use of herding and less reliance on fences.

The principle to be maintained is that of a fair return to the public, and that the resource base be improved or maintained. Both of these considerations serve both the immediate and long-term interests of rural communities adjacent to the public lands.

In any case, the reform of federal grazing arrangements cannot be put off without jeopardizing their security. Ranchers won't love bidding against the Defenders of Wildlife for a lease on land used by their grandparents, but the alternatives may be grimmer, both for the community and the resource. Competitive leasing will eventually tend to give the best managers the edge, and we don't need to decide in advance just who these people are.

Capital improvements would require agreement of both the federal agency and the leaseholder. Cost-sharing could take place when appropriate. Extensive road-building, for example, would fail the ecological monitoring, and most leaseholders wouldn't pay for it. Drift fences and water troughs, on the other hand, may pass.

A proportion of the lease price would go to local governments as a payment in lieu of taxes. Local governments adjacent to public lands would thus have a vested interest in increasing the value or productivity of the lands surrounding their communities.

Many leaseholders, or their members or employees, may elect to live in semipermanent camps on their leases. Some may not like this. Yet humans are part of the ecosystem, even at night, and there are a good many social and cultural benefits, as well as economic and environmental ones, that flow from a frank acknowledgment of this fact.

All leaseholders, whether nonprofit organizations, private businesses or corporations, educational institutions, or state and local governments, would feel financial pressure to achieve an economic return on their leases. Combined with monitoring based on ecosystem function, there would thus be a strong selective pressure for management that could turn a profit as well as improve and maintain the resource base. Thus there would at least be a possibility of making decisions that are economically, socially, and environmentally sound.

Long-term leasing would likely bring many worthwhile human values into working relationships with the land that under agency management have largely been shut out or subjected to deleterious and reductionist forms of compromise. Among these are religious or sacred values and relationships with land.

A land ethic cannot be legislated, and it cannot be handed down effortlessly from one's grandparents. We develop a land ethic by living and working according to our values. In taking responsibility for a chunk of public land, all lessees will have to deal with the public. They will have to deal with both manmade and natural threats to ecosystem condition, and they will be required to collaborate with other leaseholders in planning and setting regional goals. They will need cash flow. They will have to work at stewardship. Our primary need as a nation is to find out what works, not to enforce our prejudices.

Barriers to Acceptance

As Clawson observed in his careful analysis of long-term leasing (pp. 200-224 of The Federal Lands Revisited), a program of long-term leasing would probably require new legislation, modifications, repeal, or suspensions of some existing legislation, and a substantial public commitment to this course. Because of long-term leasing's intrinsic advantages and because of its inherent simplicity, public acceptance and even commitment may be possible. But of course there are obstacles.

First, many of us strenuously avoid addressing the underlying causes of our situation, and seek to restrict debate and discussion to the symptoms, and how to fix these symptoms that are causing such problems right now. The vast majority of legislative and executive actions fall into this category, and it is a powerful habit.

Second, there is the widespread belief that resource management cannot both yield an economic return and sustain the ecosystem. If it is profitable, we think, it must be damaging. Much of the conflict over public-land management is based on this belief. Our history of poor management generally bears it out, and past and present counterexamples are underreported because they do not correspond to it. Where management is poor, hard work and the desire for gain start to look bad. If the coxswain holding the tiller falls asleep, we blame the oarsmen for running aground.

There are some outstanding examples on private land where I live in northeastern Oregon, where landowners have taken land that was in poor shape and restored it to productivity. Biodiversity is high, commodity production is high, the land is good to look at, and the owners turn a healthy profit. Among the things these landowners have in common are a continuing willingness to learn from others, a striving for excellence, independent thinking and creativity, a great capacity for hard work, and the habit of making decisions according to their values and goals.

Because of our certainty that these things cannot be simultaneously achieved on the land, the media concentrate on stories that conform to our preconceptions. In fact, there are people who know how to make deteriorated land productive again, at a profit, and increase wildlife and biodiversity as well. Let's lease some federal lands to them.

Third, monitoring of leases based on ecosystem processes will not conform to the widespread perception of nature (and the public lands) as domain (separate from civilization, and with distinct rules), rather than as process that can or should be managed by humans. Leasing should therefore not start with wilderness areas or national parks.

Lastly, the institutional defensiveness and territoriality of the Forest Service and BLM constitute one of the strongest barriers to the acceptance of leasing on the part of the agencies. Change cannot be enforced at this level. Attrition, budget cuts, falling morale, and declining public confidence may do as much or more to create the opportunity for change than top-down policy direction.

Learning what works, bringing it to awareness, and following success is the best route to positive change.

Right now there are many kinds of leases on federal lands. What is needed is a relaxation of some laws and regulations, and a simplification, extension, and consolidation of the various types of lease agreements now in effect. Major amputations won't be necessary, and the basic administrative structure for administering leases or contracts, and doing the monitoring, is already in place. Though a greatly extended system of long-term leasing would spell the relinquishment of some agency prerogatives, there is little left here to defend.

Making long-term leasing a reality will require real leadership, clear thinking, and solid and detailed research and consultation. If leasing proposals become a continuation of present conflicts--if they are motivated, for example, by a partisan desire to defeat environmentalists, make a quick profit, scourge the agencies, or to get cattle off of public lands--the prospects for real change will be greatly diminished. What is at stake is far too important to be treated on an ideological or partisan basis.

With selective pressures in place for sound and effective resource management, the public lands could achieve their potential. Not only could we enhance the traditional multiple uses of public lands, but there would arise tremendous opportunities for meaningful work, and for creativity, innovation, and collaboration. We would see this reflected in the real health of rural communities adjacent to the public lands, whose political life has been badly compromised by federal subsidies.

Leasing could reintroduce the values and know-how of working people into goals and decisions for federal land. As many have said, the ecological crisis is also a crisis of character. In effect, we are now betting that we can develop Aldo Leopold's land ethic in courtrooms, in offices, in automobiles, and by sitting in chairs.

Peter Donovan has herded sheep and cattle and worked as a tree planter, logger, and fisherman. He lives in Enterprise, Oregon.