Into the Woods
“Public-Land Colonialism,” by Travis Kavulla (May 19 issue), does a good job of describing Cliven Bundy’s battle with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). However, it gives the impression this is a chapter in a modern story. Actually, it is just a footnote in a story that is well over 100 years old. In the mid to late 19th century, the federal government worked to dispose of federal lands in the West (the Homestead Act of 1862 is an example). At the turn of that century, the modern conservation movement gained strength with leaders like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the Forest Service). Muir believed in preservation, the other two in conservation (wise use). The West was settled by people who believed in exploitation of natural resources. Timber, grazing, mining, oil and gas, and water power are its foundation.
Timber was one of the first incendiary issues. Near-complete devastation of the eastern forests created concern for the western forests and the nation’s future needs. In 1891 Congress gave the president authority to create forest reserves on the public lands. With about 45 million forest acres, Roosevelt made rather large reserves. (One newspaper editor wrote that if the president “continued to create reserves there would be little ground left to bury folks on.”) By 1907 an Oregon senator managed to attach an amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill that limited the president’s authority to reserve forest land. It was a bill Roosevelt had to sign. His friend Pinchot quickly identified 16 million acres of forest in danger of exploitation. Roosevelt reserved it immediately and two days later signed the appropriations bill. Since Pinchot had to work day and night, these particular forest reserves became known as “midnight forests.” Many in Congress challenged Roosevelt’s authority to do it. His reply was that he had already done it.
Cliven Bundy only serves to highlight that the 150-year-old problem is coming to a head.
Thomas J. Straka
Professor of Forestry
Travis Kavulla responds: The writer is correct. There is nothing particularly new about disputes over how land that is held in trust for the public should be used. Is it to be a preserve set aside from human interference — “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” in the words of the Wilderness Act of 1964 — or a useful reserve of natural resources available for harvesting? There is plenty of ground in between these two concepts.
Sadly, the process of deciding how this land should be used is divorced from the local population that it most affects. This is so either because the BLM’s and other agencies’ decision-making processes are themselves an incomprehensible morass of bureaucracy that invite litigation even when productive uses are settled upon, or because a single person sitting in Washington, D.C. — the president — can consign, with “the pen” we today hear so much about, millions of acres to nearly complete idleness.