Public Land Conundrum

Public access and use of natural resources for recreation is a hot topic – especially as the federal and state government continue to fight over control and use of America’s public lands and their precious resources. Furthermore, this topic is critically important for us – as public land owners, as our passions, livelihoods, and way-of-life are at stake.

However, one must revisit the past in order to fully understand how we got here. The ideas of conservation, preservation and the land ethic can all be seen emerging during the Progressive Era at the start of the twentieth century (Knight, lecture, 2014). Pinchot and his economically underpinned conservation idea; Muir with his preservation idea, born by a spiritual underpinning; and Leopold’s land ethic depicting the interdependence of people and land through an ecological underpinning – can all be seen as instrumental in driving the conversation and argument about the protection-use continuum of public lands, even today.

The start of the twentieth century and the assassination of the then US President William McKinley, will be forever remembered as both a tragic death and new beginning. The assignation of McKinley promoted Teddy Roosevelt to the presidency and with it, ushered in a new era of environmental conservation (Miller, 2001). Alongside President Roosevelt, Gilford Pinchot can be seen as instrumental in bringing in a new ‘wise use’ concept in regards to the use and extraction of natural resources – specifically forests and the creation of the US Forest Service.

US Flag
The US flag flies at a local US Forest Service work station in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The US Forest Service manages 11 national forests and 2 national grasslands in Colorado.

“In the late nineteenth century, the American agricultural empire reached the Pacific coast, setting the stage for the exploitation of the region’s natural resources to feed the explosive industrial revolution. The speed with which grass, timber, and minerals were consumed helped foster the growth of a conservation movement that set the context for Pinchot’s subsequent efforts to regulate grazing, logging, and mining” (Miller, 2001, p.10).

Spawned from W.J. McGee and British philosopher Jeremy Bentham view’s of Utilitarianism, Pinchot worked to implement a new strategy of natural resource management – understanding the need to conserve natural resources while at the same time allowing for the utilization of those resources for people’s livelihoods: “the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest run” (Miller, 2001, p.155).

Equally important in helping shape a new view towards the natural environment and mankind was John Muir. “As a witness to the ‘closing of the Western frontier’, Muir felt such rapacious exploitation would soon destroy the country’s remaining natural heritage, inexhaustible though it had once seemed” (Muir, 2009, p. 4). John Muir contributed greatly with his idea of preservation stemming from his “ruling passion” of “communion with the natural world” and his “ethical attitude to our stewardship of Nature” (Muir, 2009, p. 2). Muir’s efforts – resulting from his non-anthropocentric view of nature – eventually took shape in the form of the Sierra Club (Muir, 2009).

Last but not least, Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic can be seen as pricelessly influential in today’s natural resource management arena and underpinning an ecological perspective that eventually gave rise to the idea of ecosystem services (Meine & Knight, 1999). “Since the early 1980s conservationists have focused increasingly on the functions of ecosystems, the value of biodiversity in natural systems, and the magnitude of biodiversity loss locally and globally” and this shift is “toward recognition of the basic importance of keeping, and where necessary restoring, biological diversity and ecological processes to maintain ecosystem health” (Meine & Knight, 1999, p. xv-xvi).

Early Morning Sunrise on the Decoys
The decoys are set for an early morning fall duck hunt on the high plains of Colorado. Areas like these are managed by natural resource agencies – managing the resources and the people – trying to strike a balance between use and protection.

As Aldo Leopold states, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense” (Leopold, 1970, p.223).

Even while acknowledging Pinchot’s, Muir’s, and Leopold’s enormous (understatement) contributions to the conservation movement and the subsequent governmental policy changes, there still seems to be an ever-present argument about which view should dominate public policy and to what end to operate at (Conservation, Preservation, Land Ethic), and if these views are even correct at all.

These arguments are ever-present today in terms of the protection-use continuum of public lands. We see this in an article by Nelson in the Los Angeles Times (2012), in which he states, “Today our needs are much different and much greater. The United States can no longer afford to keep tens of millions of acres of “public” land locked up and out of service”.

We also see this argument at the other end of the spectrum by the very influential author Norton (1992, p. 213) as he states, “Intrinsic values in nature might therefore have a role in our reconstruction of environmental values if they could provide objective support for broader-than-materialistic values” and he continues by saying “If we could replace Pinchot’s narrow value hypothesis with a broader one than materialistic consumerism, and if we can plausibly argue that these hypothesized goals are objectively demonstrable in some manner, the environment will be well served”.

Nonetheless, I think it is fair to point out that neither one of these views are 100% right.

Personally, I think relegating public lands to state control is a horrible, if not catastrophic idea.

States neither have the intention, money, nor the ability to keep these lands functioning for public use and eventually these public lands would be sold to the highest bidder for purposes of ‘settling the federal deficit’.

While local control and participation over management decisions pertaining to natural resources is vital to conserve and protect our public lands, the very reason why these lands were protected federally in the first place should not be overlooked.

Additionally, I think the idea espoused by Norton (1992) that Pinchot was wrong in his approach and that there is too much of a materialistic underpinning to his conservation approach is complete hogwash; an extreme environmentalist approach at worst – and a far too simplistic explanation at best.

High Plains Oasis
This vivid picture of the once thriving tail water of the Republican River on the high plains of Eastern Colorado has changed drastically, as recent political decisions have rendered this place bone-dry.

Humans are intimately and ultimately directly connected to this planet and this does mean with our economies.

To disconnect our livelihoods and economies from the natural world would be the biggest disaster of all. We don’t live in museums and we never will. However, we must pay close attention and keep a watchful eye on natural resource management policies, regardless of political affiliations.

Fortunately, the path forward has been laid out in front of us by Pinchot, Muir, and Leopold.

Utilizing common ground and compromise is (should be) the order of the day.

Some places have been lost to time, others to humanity’s endless appetite to build and expand, but many other places have luckily been kept intact and preserved for the future benefit for us all.

As Aldo Leopold said, “The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process. Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of land, or the economic land-use” (Leopold, 1970, p. 225).


Leopold, A. (1970). A Sand County Almanac. 1949. New York: Ballantine. Excerpt: “The land ethic” (PDF).

Meine, C., & Knight, R. L. (Eds.). (1999). The essential Aldo Leopold: quotations and commentaries. Univ of Wisconsin Press.

  1. Forward and Introduction
  2. Chapter 20: Land ethics: Into Terra Incognita (J. Baird Callicott)

Miller, C. (2001). Gifford Pinchot and the making of modern environmentalism. Washington, D.C.: Island.

Muir, J. (2009). Journeys in the wilderness: a John Muir reader. Edinburgh: Birlinn. Introduction & Chapter 5: Yosemite.

Nelson, Robert H. (2012). Free the American west. Los Angeles Times. March 7, 2012.

Norton, B. G. (1992). Epistemology and environmental values. The Monist, 75(2), 208-226.

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