An Introduction, by Patty Limerick

When people get the news that an ancestor has singled them out for a vast inheritance, they tend to wake up and pay close attention.

When an entire nation receives an enormous treasure as its legacy, the inclination to pay rapt attention to this bequest can be oddly subdued, and a state of mind closer to slumber persists.

In September 2012, a very diverse group of citizens came together under the banner of The Nation Possessed conference to reengage the American people with a full recognition of their shared stake in the nation’s public lands. A bicentennial offers a spectacular opportunity to think hard about where we ourselves stand in the big picture of history. The bicentennial of the creation of the General Land Office, the most consequential agency in surveying, shaping, and distributing claims on the nation’s landscape, offered just such an opportunity.

After nearly a century of “disposal,” transforming the public domain into private property, our predecessors rearranged the practices and customs of the General Land Office, and began removing lands from homesteading and designating them for lasting federal management. The year 2012 offered a first-rate opportunity to look back over two centuries of federal land policy, and to imagine, envision, and anticipate the next century of the public lands.

The first two days of our conference offered sessions on the history of the public lands, with frequent references to the implications for and consequences of that history in our own times. Lively summaries of those sessions appear in this report.

On the third day, in the most important element of the conference, we convened a roundtable representing many of the different constituencies who have particular hopes and visions for the future. Seated together were representatives of the outdoor industry, environmental organizations, the livestock business, the oil and gas industry, Indian communities, along with public servants who had held positions ranging from Chief of the USDA Forest Service to a US Senator from Utah, from Deputy Secretary of the Interior to County Commissioner.

Early in the roundtable’s discussions, serving as moderator, I began to wonder if the roundtable stood any chance of finding even one or two propositions on which we could agree. Momentarily befuddled, I asked the group if they thought that we would reach any agreements. The group voted – unanimously – that we would not!

And then, having come together in complete unity to declare that we were unlikely to make much progress, we disproved this preliminary appraisal!

In this report, you will find ten propositions on which the members of the roundtable were able to agree. These propositions build on recognitions, understandings, and trends that are had their origins well before we convened in September 2013. But these propositions also push forward, past existing customs and practices, asking American citizens and public officials to seize the extraordinary political opportunity that their inheritance of public lands presents to them.

What opportunity is that?

The public lands are the testing ground for the compatibility of democratic self-governance and conservation. In early phases of the conservation of natural resources, the managing of resources for the long haul often came in the same package with the exercise of top-down authority, with the officials and agents of empires and colonial governance exercising power in a unilateral way. In the United States, the many decisions that led to the designation of public lands (under the jurisdictions of the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service) have created an extraordinary laboratory for a vast experiment in testing the compatibility of democracy and conservation.

The members of the roundtable who met in September 2012 differed in their interests and preferences. But they were, every one of them, deeply committed to the success of this experiment and charged with faith in the future.

We hope that the recommendations in this report will inspire a similar commitment and faith in its readers. The principles here are broad in scope, but they are ready for the most down-to-earth practice and application. At a time when the nation struggles for a shared vision of its future, the legacy and inheritance represented by the public lands offers, in every sense, common ground. For that reason alone, the time is right to pay attention.

– Patty Limerick
On behalf of the cosponsoring organizations,
the Center of the American West
and the Public Lands Foundation