The Conference Sessions

The Nation Possessed featured six conference sessions designed to provide an introduction to the history of the General Land Office and the variety of issues confronting its modern-day descendant, the Bureau of Land Management. These sessions were complemented by keynote addresses from Native American attorney Walter Echo-Hawk and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, an interview with recently retired BLM Director Bob Abbey, and visits from Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and a future American.

Keynote Address

The Dark Side Of Manifest Destiny

A Native American Perspective On The Public Lands
Walter Echo-Hawk, Native American Attorney

We begin at the beginning, when every square foot of the land we call the public domain was controlled by Native American tribes. Walter Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee tribe and a distinguished attorney and author, opened the conference program with a talk that aimed to provide “the Native American perspective on the taking and use and disposition of their lands.”

Taking the audience on a tour of “the dark side of Manifest Destiny,” the centuries-long effort by Europeans and Americans to wrest lands from Native possession and colonize them, Echo-Hawk focused on the lopsided legal framework that justified this conquest and the violence that often enforced it. He asserted that by the middle of the twentieth century, only 5 percent of the Native American population survived and 2.3 percent of their ancestral lands remained under tribal control after centuries of warfare, disease, boarding schools, land seizures, habitat destruction, and forcible cultural assimilation since the arrival of Europeans.

The result of this historical trauma has been what Echo-Hawk described as “post-colonial stress disorder” among native people today. The unresolved grief is transmitted from generation to generation and manifests itself in high rates of violent crime including sexual assault, low rates of educational completion, shorter life expectancy, and destructive behaviors that reinforce desperate circumstances in Indian Country. However, the resurgence of tribal sovereignty since the 1970s has marked the rise of modern Indian nations, and the relationship between the tribes and the BLM is evolving toward a partnership. “The tribes are not going anywhere, and they’re not an ordinary stakeholder,” Echo-Hawk explained. “Their interests must be taken into account, their needs and their authentic aspirations, and in our discourse we need to be accountable to that.”

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 and endorsed by the Obama Administration in 2010, can serve as a framework for this discourse and ensuing action in the future. But at its core, this discourse should be founded upon something less formal but more powerful than a UN Declaration – a new American land ethic that moves beyond the colonial understanding of land in terms of potential yield and instead values and protects indigenous habitat, holy places, and cultural resources. “I apologize if I’ve been the skunk at the picnic,” Echo-Hawk said in closing, “but I wanted to really drive home a very strong indigenous perspective on the subject at hand.”

Session One

Clerks and Cowboys

The General Land Office and the Shaping of the United States
Anne Hyde, Professor of History at Colorado College
Paul Sutter, Professor of History at the University of Colorado Boulder
Malcolm Rohrbough, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Iowa

When the public thinks of the history of the American West, images of trappers, prospectors, and cowboys rush to mind. But the land office clerks in the General Land Office (forerunner to today’s Bureau of Land Management), along with the members of Congress who wrote the land laws, were far more consequential characters. As the agency charged with administering the settlement of the nation’s public domain, the GLO was the principal force in shaping the landscape – in a literal sense, creating the public land pattern we see today – west of the original thirteen colonies.

The General Land Office was created in 1812 at a “dreadful moment” in American history, according to historian Anne Hyde. Americans in the early nineteenth century were anxious about the powerful tribes to the west and north, the onrushing prospect of another war with Britain and its tribal allies, and the young republic’s dire financial woes. The settlement of the nation’s vast public domain – created from cessions by the original states, acquisitions (and forcible seizures) from tribes, and the Louisiana Purchase – seemed to provide antidote to these anxieties: the prospect of territorial control, enhanced security, and a source of revenue. But, as Hyde explained, “the national effort to get lands from the hands of these native nations into the hands of EuroAmerican speculators and farmers was an enormous, expensive, complicated public project.”

The GLO was the bureaucratic arm of that project, charged with implementing a system to provide for the orderly distribution of the public domain. As Hyde put it, “The story is here that big government won the West, and this big government got its first operating lessons on how to operate in the context of the General Land Office.” Some of those lessons were delivered on a steep learning curve. Historian Malcolm Rohrbough explained that the agency was overwhelmed from the start as it attempted to respond to an ever-increasing pace of applications for land within a regularly shifting framework of ever-more-complex legislation regulating that land’s dispersal, all the while woefully understaffed.

The most celebrated of the land distribution policies implemented by the GLO was the Homestead Act of 1862, passed by the Republican-dominated Congress during the Civil War. By the time the law had fully run its course (into the latter decades of the 20th century), historian Paul Sutter noted that about two million people had received patents on about 270 million acres, and about 40 percent of those patents had been proven up. The act gave settlers an incentive to keep pushing into more marginal lands, but homesteaders quickly bumped up against what Sutter called “the end of arability” as the supply of lands suitable for agricultural cultivation dwindled. Despite a series of subsequent laws designed to encourage further settlement, large swaths of the arid West remained in the public domain and under the control of the GLO. By and large, these are the public lands we know today.

The Homestead Act marked the end of the first era of American land policy, departing from the notion that the public lands should be used as a national source of revenue and instead prioritizing their disposal. As it exposed the limits of the traditional notions of agrarian settlement, it gave rise to the next era in land policy, which Paul Sutter terms the Conservation Era for its focus on protecting and managing what resources remained – particularly water, timber, and grazing land – for the benefit of established settlers. One of the laws that typified this new era was the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, legislation that presaged the merger of the Grazing Service and the GLO into the BLM in 1946.

Session Two

Burning Man Meets Managing Man

The Bureau of Land Management and the Energy of American Art
Will Roger Peterson, Cofounder of Burning Man
Dave Cooper, Former BLM Manager for the Black Rock Desert

The public lands serve as a canvas for a full-color spectrum of ideas about their use. Many of these ideas challenge land managers to balance traditional uses, societal values, and environmental protection with emerging trends and interests. Perhaps no activity illustrates this management challenge more vibrantly than the Burning Man Festival.

Since 1991 (with the exception of one year), the annual Burning Man Festival has taken place on Bureau of Land Management land in the Black Rock Desert 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada. Although the notion of “multiple use” has always carried a wide range of meanings for BLM lands, the week-long celebration of art and creativity that attracts more than 50,000 revelers to the desolate playa pushes at the edges of that range. The festival illustrates both the great range of democratic desires to use the public lands for particular purposes and the central role that the West’s fabled open spaces and wide vistas have long played in American art. That the Burners and the BLM are able to successfully collaborate in staging such a huge event in a sensitive National Conservation Area provides two unlikely and inspirational testaments: to the agency’s commitment to managing lands of many uses and to the power of the land ethic espoused in the Ten Principles of Burning Man.

The Black Rock Desert is a “land of extremes,” says Dave Cooper, the area’s BLM manager from 2001-09. It’s the type of place where people headed into the backcountry should have a four-wheel drive vehicle with at least two full-sized spare tires and plenty of extra food and water. It’s not the obvious place for setting up a temporary city for tens of thousands of people, but that’s exactly what the organizers of Burning Man do each year when they erect Black Rock City.

The semi-circular city is compacted into five square miles, and volunteers provide all of the essential services that residents need. Ask festival cofounder Will Roger Peterson how organizers collect trash and recycling, guard against (unintentional) fire, provide medical care, keep the peace, and provide the other essential infrastructure and community services that any city needs, and he’s likely to say that “we have a department that works on that.” This propensity toward well-planned management does not end at the borders of Black Rock City nor as the last puffs of smoke drift up from the ashes of the Man – festival organizers work with the BLM to create environmental assessments, file appropriate permits (at all levels of government), meet the stringent criteria of a “leave no trace” event, and develop five-year plans that allow the festival to grow in a controlled manner.

As it turns out, Burning Man is closely related to Managing Man. An enormous amount of bureaucracy is required to support a week’s worth of expressive freedom in the desert. In a sense, bureaucracy is the infrastructure of American freedom.


Reflections of a Former BLM Director

Bob Abbey, Former Director of the Bureau of Land Management
Tim Egan, Author and Writer for the New York Times

After a career spanning thirty-five years with state and federal land management agencies, recently retired Director of the Bureau of Land Management Bob Abbey sat down with award-winning journalist and author Tim Egan to reflect on his experiences in public service. The conversation provided a sample of the diverse, complex, and intricately intermingled issues confronting modern land managers: the threat of water shortages in the West, the impacts of climate change, the trade-offs of energy development, the protection of species, the menace of wildfire, the demands of recreation, the meaning of multiple use, the difficult-to-discern desires of the American public, the value of conservation, and more.

In one of the most notable moments in a conversation filled with perspective and insights gained from a lifetime of service on the public lands and unrestrained by the demands of his former position, Abbey forcefully asserted that conservation has a place in the Bureau’s multiple use mandate: “Conservation is part – and a legitimate part – of our multiple use mission, and we should not be apologetic for that. At the same time that we need to make appropriate lands available for energy development, we need to be making sure that other areas that are more appropriate for conservation and protection are also added to the equation, and part of the discussion.”

That discussion can be contentious, Abbey admitted, but he asked the audience to join it in good faith. Rather than litigation designed to tie up land management offices and prevent the implementation of any management decisions, the former director spoke forcefully in favor of constructive participation in the process. “While we may disagree about how some of these lands are managed, or the programs that are being managed, or even some of the uses that are taking place on these public lands, then let’s have that legitimate discussion,” Abbey asked the audience. “Let’s engage in the options and the alternatives that are readily available for us to make a determination about what is an appropriate decision, what is an appropriate action.”

Session Three

Reconciling the Treasures of Resources with the Treasures of Beauty and Biology

The BLM and the Art of American Energy
Bill Ritter, former Governor of Colorado
Johanna Wald, Senior Attorney at the National Resources Defense Council
Adrianne Kroepsch, Graduate Student Studying Oil and Gas Development at the University of Colorado Boulder

The public lands bring the nation’s energy issues to a sharp focus. When we make decisions – or don’t make them – about the development of traditional and renewable energy on public lands (or of federally managed subsurface resources), we face the crucial challenge of balancing the partial recovery of the economy, the reliance on foreign oil, the needs of endangered species, the landscape enthusiasms of the American public, and the uncertainties of climate change. As graduate student Adrianne Kroepsch pointed out, the trade-off for every energy resource – and perhaps particularly for natural gas – “has significant pros and cons.” Johanna Wald, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, put it more succinctly: “There’s no free lunch when it comes to energy.”

Energy development on public lands is among the most controversial issues confronting the BLM today. But it wasn’t always so. In the past decade, improvements in hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling technologies have dramatically increased the pace of development, and as oil and gas companies have followed shale plays to densely settled areas like the Colorado Front Range, concerns and controversies have risen in proportion with the affected population. Regulators – particularly in energy hot spots like Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas – have been revising rules to address these concerns, but they are often playing catch-up.

One approach to getting ahead of controversial energy development is to designate those places that are appropriate for development and those that deserve protection before accepting lease applications. The BLM is doing up-front planning as it identifies appropriate locations for large-scale solar projects in the West, known in agency parlance as solar energy zones (SEZs), and such a process might be adapted to other forms of energy development.

Such decisions involve complex and often imprecise calculations of cost and benefit, but a national energy policy tied to environmental policy and climate change science would lend clarity and help establish the timetable for the transition to renewable sources in the future. Former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter suggested that the transition could be accomplished in fifteen to twenty-five years, but to do so “policy, finance, and technology all have to be paired together in a national energy plan. And if we don’t have that, the transition will be very slow.”

Ultimately, managing the use of public lands might be profitably thought of in terms of zoning, a classification system we already use in other contexts to determine appropriate uses for the land. In some cases, the best use might be conservation for wilderness-based recreation; in others it might be as a staging ground for festivals; and in still others it may be grazing or oil and gas drilling. If some places are too special for development and ought to be protected, the converse is that some places ought to be zoned as appropriate places for resource development.

Session Four

Science vs. Emotion

Making Informed Decisions in the Midst of a Stampede
Mike Dombeck, Global Conservation Professor at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, Former Chief of the US Forest Service
Lynn Scarlett, Former Deputy Secretary of the Interior
Curt Brown, Director of Research and Development, Bureau of Reclamation

Since the federal government’s sponsorship of the great explorations of the nineteenth-century West, the role of science in public policy-making and implementation has occupied center-stage in the region’s development as land managers and users regularly look to scientists to provide clear answers to questions about the allocation of resources. But land managers who attempt to use scientific research to resolve conflicting demands for the use and protection of public lands often find themselves caught up in the intense cultural, emotional, and political dimensions of the debate. How can people of good intent but varied values steer by science while balancing the legal obligations, economic considerations, recreational opportunities, ecological responsibilities, and diverse local, state, and national priorities that make questions about the use of public lands regularly among the most fraught in the public discourse?

Rather than light a clear path to a solution, scientific data alone often leads to data disputes among equal and opposite experts, allowing partisans to embrace the facts that ring true to them. In the debate over contentious issues, federal land managers often feel that they are held to a higher standard of conduct and honesty than those they are dealing with. In such situations, Curt Brown, the Director of Research and Development at the Bureau of Reclamation, explained that these beleaguered land managers have to be trained that they personally are not the target of this animus.

Lynn Scarlett, Deputy Secretary of the Interior in the George W. Bush Administration, argued that research becomes richer and more useful when scientists work with stakeholders to find out what information will facilitate productive dialog. Mike Dombeck, former Chief of the Forest Service and now a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, added that such collaborations and dialogs are more successful at the local level, and they become more polarized at the state and federal level.

Personal emotions and societal values often operate alongside scientific data in the decisionmaking process. Considerations about difficult issues are refracted through these multiple lenses in a way that resists the oversimplified popular framework that casts emotion opposite science. As a result, most natural resource questions might be best understood not as simple scientific problems to solve but as political – or, in loftier terms, philosophical – questions to resolve. And like most philosophical questions, land management issues are not often productively resolved simply on the basis of data. A process that recognizes the intricate interaction of science, emotion, and values across multiple layers of stakeholders in land management decisions stands to create a more productive discourse with a better chance of arriving at the most appropriate decision.

Keynote Address

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar

Calling the public lands “uniquely American and radically democratic,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar outlined the Obama Administration’s approach to managing that legacy in ways that will ensure the nation’s environmental security.

The Secretary held up the “Smart from the Start” initiative being implemented by Interior as an effective strategy for proactively managing conflicts over the public lands. By making early-stage decisions aimed at avoiding controversy and likely litigation, the department is working to “deconflict” the public lands. When the BLM leases lands for energy development that are less likely to be subject to an environmental lawsuit, for example, they ensure faster times to production of the resources and free the agency from the prospect of time- and resource-consuming litigation, leaving land managers better able to serve the public. As a result of this strategy, Salazar said, oil and gas production (on- and offshore) has risen 13 percent over the past three years.

Emphasizing that the Department of Interior – and in particular the Bureau of Land Management – plays an essential role in the nation’s energy production, Salazar also trumpeted the dramatic expansion of the nation’s renewable portfolio on public lands over the past three years. Guided by the principle of “Smart from the Start,” the department is currently conducting an environmental analysis across six Western states to identify areas with the highest potential for renewable energy generation with the fewest conflicting uses.

Session Five

Respecting Posterity’s Property

Bob Bennett, former Senator from Utah
John Freemuth, Professor of Public Administration at Boise State University
Luther Probst, Executive Director of the Sonoran Institute

Does the nation need public lands? Since the end of the Era of Disposal – when the General Land Office worked to convey federal lands to private citizens – in the late nineteenth century, the notion of privatizing the public lands or placing them under state control has attracted intense interest at recurring intervals. Can the federal government effectively manage the public lands, or would the nation and our posterity be best served by surrendering jurisdiction to those who live nearer to these places?

In the course of the last century, there have been several movements to privatize public lands or to return them to the states. Legally, however, as Professor John Freemuth of Boise State University explained, return is not the correct term for Western states, which were all once public lands before they became states. Instead, the proper term is transfer, and at various times early in the twentieth century the federal government did offer to transfer public lands – those that had not been attractive enough for settlement thus far – to the states. Such offers were usually rebuffed by the states.

The notion cropped back up with the Sagebrush Rebels in the 1970s and ‘80s and most recently among members of the Tea Party. Encouraged by the Tea Party, Utah has passed legislation asserting state authority over federal lands, and groups in Arizona have been actively promoting this cause as well. However, as former Utah Senator Bob Bennett and former Executive Director of the Arizona-based Sonoran Institute Luther Propst explained, such sentiments are not universal in these states. Bennett described a land bill he brokered among pro-growth and conservation stakeholders to sell off some public land while designating additional lands for protection in Washington County, Utah, and Propst described Arizona legislation that had garnered broad support for land swaps and consolidation between the state and federal government.

The public lands are fertile ground for many visions. Although dramatic actions like the wholesale transfer of federal lands into state control or privatization may have the appeal of philosophical simplicity and decisiveness for some people, collaborative decisionmaking processes born of broad stakeholder engagement are the most productive way to navigate the difficult values-laden questions that grow on public land. Simply put, bills in the vein of those offered as models by Bennett and Probst are the best hope for the future of land management. The more often we can identify common interests or concerns, the more collaborative, pragmatic, and ultimately productive management practices will be.

Session Six

Orchestrating Tradition and Change

Emphasizing Conservation in the Bureau of Land Management
Bob Abbey, Former Director of the Bureau of Land Management
Emilyn Sheffield, Professor of Recreation and Parks Management at the University of California Chico
Anna Triebel, Recent Graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder

Conservation asks the people of the present to respect the interests of the people of the future. Professor Emilyn Sheffield of California State University Chico provided a glimpse of those future Americans with demographic trends drawn from the US Census.

Americans are growing older, with aging baby boomers and super seniors (those 85 or older) claiming an increasing share of the population. At the same time, Americans are getting younger, with roughly a quarter of the population still awaiting their 18th birthday. Americans of all ages are increasingly diverse, with about a third of the population – and roughly half of those younger than 18 – from diverse non-Hispanic white racial or ethnic backgrounds, and Latino/Hispanic people constituting the largest and fastest growing minority group today. Americans of every background overwhelmingly live in urban or suburban areas rather than rural places, with only 15-20 percent living outside of metropolitan areas today. And our population is growing rapidly, with 88% of that growth coming in the South and Southwest. By the year 2100, these trends will be expressed in the faces of 571 million people who will call the United States home.

With these significant changes on the horizon, Sheffield had a message for public land managers: “If we’re going to conserve America into the future, we’re going to have to inspire Americans to a new future. We’re going to have to deputize the country to get this work done. Because changes in the size and composition and choices of the population will determine our future and theirs.”

Asking citizens of a society famed for its hurried rush toward the future to pause and think seriously about time and its passage will require creative and innovative strategies, and also down-to-earth examples. Inspiration on both fronts can be found in the National Landscape Conservation System, a relatively new designation for nationally significant BLM lands throughout the West. Recent University of Colorado graduate Anna Triebel, who wrote her senior thesis on the NLCS, joined former Director of the BLM Bob Abbey in introducing this twenty-first century approach to land stewardship.

If the Homestead Act of 1862 ushered the nation toward the first dramatic shift in American land policy, from the Era of Disposal to the Era of Conservation at the end of the nineteenth century, the National Landscape Conservation System within the BLM may mark a new transition at the outset of the twenty-first century. Historians of the future may cite the creation of the NLCS in 2000 as the signal event in the shift from Era of Preservation to an Era of Integration, an era in which our land policies began to approach landscapes and ecosystems as connected notions and human beings as integral actors within the environment.


The Public Domain and the Public Lands: 1812, 1912, 2112

Conversations with Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and a Visitor from the Future
Clay Jenkinson, Humanities Scholar and Performer
Bryce Townsend, Actor
Patty Limerick, Professor of History, Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado Boulder

A dramatic performance intended to explore some of the perspectives that intersect on the nation’s public lands.