by Ed Shepard
Summers somehow get shorter and shorter every year. Here we are in fall and the year is slipping away. I hope you all had a good summer and had a chance to enjoy yourself, whatever you planned to do.
Many of us just returned from the annual PLF meeting in Las Cruces, NM. I had never been to that part of New Mexico before and was surprised at how green it was for September. The meeting was outstanding and we heard from several different perspectives on the meeting theme of Keeping Public Lands in Public Hands. We heard of the value of these lands from the local to national level and from the legal, legislative, environmental, and economic perspectives. U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich addressed us via video. All the speakers were excellent. Former BLM Director Jim Caswell and first-year BLM employee Jake Palma were two speakers that stood out in my mind. Jim talked to us about moving beyond the rhetoric and seeking sustainable solutions. Jake, a second generation BLMer, gave us some insight of the value of public lands that he gained from his time growing up in rural America the son of a BLM employee and now as a new BLM employee with children of his own. We also heard from Director Kornze’s Chief-of-staff Anita Bilboa who filled us in on the many issues the BLM is facing from the National-level. In my book, one measure of the success of a meeting is the energy level of the participants. By the end of the day the energy level in the room was very high and I had to shut off the discussion so that the hotel staff could prepare set up for the banquet.
The day before the meeting we were given a tour of the new Organ Mountain-Desert Peak National Monument. We heard from several of the Las Cruces District specialists on the great work they are doing with the local publics and governments to manage the Monument and the surrounding National Public Lands. Following the field trip we had a BBQ where we enjoyed the moon rising over the Organ Mountains looking in one direction and, at the same time a beautiful New Mexico sunset in the other direction.
The week prior to the annual meeting the third biennial Student Congress was held. Twenty college students from across the country attended the congress to discuss the values of the National Public Lands amongst themselves and with several land management experts. Their recommendations will soon be finalized and will be presented to the BLM Director and the Secretary. Thank you to the students and the advisors for another great congress. These student congresses would not be possible without the dedicated work of many PLF members that selflessly contribute countless hours making these congresses a success.
A special thank you is in order for New Mexico State Director Amy Leuders, Associate State Director Aden Seidlitz, and Las Cruces District Manager Bill Childress and their staff. The student congress nor the annual meeting and field trip would have been possible without their involvement and it is greatly appreciated.
This year’s theme of “Keeping National Public Lands in Public Hands” is especially timely. As you are all aware, 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the merger of the General Land Office and the Taylor Grazing Service into the Bureau of Land Management, and the 40th anniversary of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. One of the driving forces for the passage of FLPMA was the Public Land Law Review Commission and their report One Third of the Nation’s Land. The Commission’s work, conducted over several years the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s, was a look at the 3000 plus public land laws governing public lands and how these lands should be managed and by whom. One outcome was the passage of FLPMA including the repeal of most of the public land laws, except for a few like the Mining Law of 1872, the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, and the 1937 O&C Act; the inclusion of BLM into the Wilderness Act; and the provision for multiple use management. However, the most significant provision of FLPMA was that most of the remaining public lands would be RETAINED in the Federal estate and managed by the BLM for the benefits of current and future generations.
One would think that this would have settled the disposition of National Public Lands once and for all, but as current events remind us, nothing is forever and nothing is without controversy; at least not for long. Several bills are currently being proposed in Congress and state legislatures challenging who does, or should own the public lands and who the lands should be managed by. The controversy only goes to highlight the importance these lands have had in the eyes of the American people since before the establishment of this Republic 240 years ago.
This past April I had the opportunity to make a presentation on behalf of PLF to the Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C. on the public lands. The GAO asked for the presentation after seeing the PLF publication America’s Public Lands: origin, history, future and the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in January. Assistant Director Mike Nedd joined me in the presentation. Part of my presentation was a discussion of the four public land commissions that have been held since 1879 and it reinforced, at least for me, that the controversies of the past are still present. Following the transfer of the majority of the public domain during the mid-1800s, the public became concerned with the illegal appropriation of lands and resources under the many land disposal acts. Congress established the first Public Lands Commission to study how the laws might be changed to prevent speculation and fraud. Congress largely ignored the recommendations of the Commission, but it did lead to further reporting of fraud by the GLO Commissioners and eventually the passage of the General Public Lands Reform Act in 1891.
This Act repealed several acts and limited acres that could be transferred from the public domain under other acts.
The General Public Lands Reform Act reduced fraud for a period of time but by the early 1900s there was a notable resurgence. This led President Theodore Roosevelt to establish a second Public Lands Commission under the chairmanship of Gifford Pinchot. This commission found that many of the existing laws were outdated for the times and recommended the repeal of several acts and changes to others to prevent fraud. Like the first Commission, Congress largely ignored the recommendations, although tweaks to some acts were made.
By the 1930s most of the 1.8 billion acres of the original public domain had passed into private or state ownership, or was reserved in National Forests, National Parks, and National Wildlife Refuges under the 1906 Antiquities Act or other laws.
In 1930 President Hoover established the third public lands commission called the Committee on the Conservation and Administration of the Public Domain. This commission supported Hoover’s idea that the remaining unappropriated public lands could be better managed by the states and called for the lands to be transferred to the states. This proposal received intense opposition across the country as well as in the west. Management of the lands following this led to the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act and, eventually Reorganization Plan Number 3 in 1946, establishing the BLM.
The interest in the lands continued to grow following World War II and eventually, in 1964, Congress passed the Classification and Multiple Use Act directing the BLM to classify lands to be retained for multiple use and lands to be disposed of. This Act was temporary and went along with the establishment of the Public Land Law Review Commission and, eventually FLPMA.
The history of public land management is one that we, as BLM employees, had a proud part in writing. The story of the National Public Lands is still being written and there will be many more chapters. It is up to the PLF and other like-minded organizations to see that those chapters retain “America’s Public Lands in public hands, professionally and sustainably managed for responsible common use and enjoyment”.
In closing, this will be my last column as the president of the PLF. It has been an honor to serve as your president for the past four years, but it is time to turn the reins over the a new president in January. Jesse Juen, current vice president, has agreed to stand for president and has many ideas on how to move the organization forward. Thank you to all of the officers, board members and committee members who have supported PLF over the years. An all-volunteer organization like PLF can only be successful as long as there are members who will step forward and do the work to keep the organization progressing.