A defining characteristic of the American West is the vast expanse of federal lands and natural resources bases that stretch throughout the region. Rural communities and their livelihoods are most often attached to these lands and resources, and have been for generations. But the debate over the management of public lands and natural resources in the American West has become an increasingly controversial and divisive topic in recent years, with numerous stakeholders emerging and presenting their views on how these lands and resources should be managed, and to whom they rightfully belong. This panel sought to offer perspectives on the past, present, and future of public lands and natural resource management in the rural Rocky Mountain West.
Held March 19, 2016 at the University of Montana in Missoula, MT
Speakers Click to cue video
- Todd Holmes, Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University, Moderatorcue video
- Patrick Shea, University of Utah, “A Modest Proposal Revisited” cue video
- Nicola Ulibarri, Bill Lane Center for the American West, “Collaborative Governance and Water in the Western US” cue video
- Tay Wiles, High Country Newscue video
- Martha Williams, University of Montana cue video
- Discussion and Questions cue video
- Bruce E. Cain, Bill Lane Center for the American West, Closing remarks cue video
The last panel of the Rural West Conference turned to the underpinning of the American West: its vast expanses of land. Patrick Shea (video), former director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and a professor of biology at the University of Utah, opened the conversation by tallying the federal government’s landholdings: the BLM manages 265 million acres; the US Forest Service manages 193 million; the Fish and Wildlife Service, 150 million; and the National Park Service, another 84.9 million. Shea added that surface land wasn’t the only part of the picture; the BLM also has 700 million acres of underground estate in its portfolio.
Recognizing the audience’s potential resistance to the idea of federal-state land transfers, Shea titled his talk “A Modest Proposal, Revisited.” (slides) His proposal suggested that (predominantly western) states with large amounts of federally owned land should be enabled to manage a portion of this land, as long as they adhere to federal laws and regulations (i.e. The Clean Air Act), and federal audits. Two additional stipulations of his plan were that areas near waterways should be managed by the federal government because of the presence of sensitive biota, and subsurface assets should also be managed with federal oversight. Any profits made from these mineral resources, he added, should go towards “the exclusive use of education.” Shea posited that by making management more local, lands could be managed more efficiently. New technologies could also help monitor that land in an effective manner. Shea closed with the idea that westerners need a re-education about the valuable and unique natural resources they have inherited, and how they can and should manage them in the future.
Nicola Ulibarri (video), a postdoctoral fellow at the Bill Lane Center, focused on collaborative governance and water in the western United States. She opened with the example of hydropower, which she explained is characteristic of many public resources, like timber or solar energy, in that its development can impact a number of different stakeholders. Water is important for many reasons, Ulibarri said. Water can be a habitat for fish, an energy source, a culturally significant resource, an asset to agriculture, and a site for recreation. These differing use interests are often competing, making effective collaboration difficult. Ulibarri, who has participated in pilot projects designed to enhance collaboration, says that by looking at case studies and examining successful projects, one can begin to understand how barriers such as time and willingness to engage can be overcome to achieve more collaborative processes.
The standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was referenced several times during the conference. Tay Wiles (video), a reporter and web editor at High Country News, was able to bring firsthand experience into the conversation. Wiles, a 2015-16 media fellow at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, discussed her work reporting on groups who purport to be defending their Constitutional rights by opposing government ownership and intervention on public lands. The most notable example is the Bundy family, whose actions have made headlines multiple times in the past few years. At the beginning of her remarks, she emphasized that her approach – and the approach of High Country News – was to report with an eye towards compassion for the local experience. From the beginning, the questions that are asked are “why is it happening?” and “what does it mean?” Wiles noted that often, the conversation that results from standoffs like Malheur and one at a nearby mine involving a Southern Oregon group called the Oath Keepers, becomes one step removed from actual conversation about public lands.
Martha Williams (video) concluded the final panel by emphasizing that an understanding of the legal framework of the West is vital to understanding the story of the West. Williams is an assistant professor at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana, where she focuses on environmental law. A firm grasp on the issues of the West, she said, is key for future leaders. Major federal and state legislation is usually the result of a real or perceived problem, Williams stated, and it’s important to be able to parse through reactions and overreactions on social media to understand what is actually occurring. Her words echoed the sentiments of earlier panel speakers, who expressed the importance of looking beyond the rhetoric in order to effectively, compassionately, and collaboratively address Western issues.