Roundtable Recommendations for the Future of America’s Public Lands

Together, the Center of the American West and the Public Lands Foundation assembled a diverse group of 14 distinguished thinkers on public lands issues, whose connections to those lands span from Washington, D.C. headquarters to multi-generational ranching operations. These stakeholders spent a day debating the terms for connecting the well-being of the public lands to the well-being of the nation, and attempted to set a future course for public lands management that acknowledges the mandate of multiple-use and the imperative of posterity. As participants weighed in on what is “working” public lands management and what isn’t, they were encouraged to court the positive public opinion of the people of 2112. Their recommendations and our observations follow here.

Roundtable Members

  • Patty Limerick (Moderator), Chair of the Board and Faculty Director,
    Center of the American West
  • Bob Abbey, Former Director of BLM
  • Steve Allred, Former Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals
  • Bob Bennett, Former Senator of Utah
  • Michele (Mike) Bloom, Colorado State Land Commissioner
  • Dale Bosworth, Former Chief of the U.S. Forest Service
  • Jim Caswell, Former Director of BLM
  • Adam Cramer, General Counsel for Outdoor Alliance
  • Art Goodtimes, San Miguel County Commissioner
  • Lois Herbst, Wyoming Rancher and Former President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association
  • Luther Propst, Executive Director of The Sonoran Institute
  • Lynn Scarlett, Former Deputy Secretary of the Interior
  • Barbara A. Sutteer, Former National Park Superintendent, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
  • Johanna Wald, Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council
  • Duane Zavadil, Senior Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs,
    Bill Barrett Corporation

Roundtable Discussion

For bipartisan progress to be made on difficult issues these days, it seems that a “gang” must be commissioned to do the job. If so, then ours was the “Gang of 14” – an assembly of 14 distinguished and diverse thinkers, collectively representing a kaleidoscope of public lands stakeholders. The “gang members” included representatives from environmental organizations, Indian communities, multigenerational ranching operations, the oil and gas industry, the recreation sector, agency leadership, and more. As one might imagine, they did not speak with a single voice about their hopes for the future of the public lands. But that was the point. United by a commitment to thoughtful debate and the pursuit of compromise, the 14 panelists earned their lunch (if not also a lunch break) in a persistent, daylong attempt to set a future course for public lands management that acknowledges both the mandate of multiple use and the imperative of posterity.

Moderator Patty Limerick launched the discussion as one might begin a major home renovation – more specifically, as one might begin to update a house that has been in a constant state of remodeling for 200 years and that now has 313 million owners. Which aspects of public lands management would the roundtable members deem to be “keepers,” Limerick asked, and which should be pitched out to make room for new additions? Former Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett nominated “an interconnected platform” as her keeper of choice, calling for tighter links between federal agencies and stakeholders rather than the “fragmentation and disconnection” that she would like to leave behind. Others agreed and added their own ideas. Bob Abbey, former Director of the BLM, said he’d focus on finding ways to reduce the timeframes for agency decisions while also incorporating the input of more stakeholders through collaborative processes. Steve Allred, former Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals, echoed Abbey’s point about the importance of timeliness as he lamented the traps of modern policymaking, which sometimes prevent decisions from being made at all. “It must be remembered that when you don’t make a decision, you have in fact made a decision,” Allred said.

As the Gang of 14 discussed and debated their individual targets for remedy, they steered themselves into a few unexpected moments of optimism, as well as a handful of productive disagreements. By the end of the afternoon, a number of roundtable members coalesced around the idea of the “sweet spot” – a consequential concept that, if it appears in public administration textbooks at all, probably does so under a different name. According to Colorado State Land Commissioner Michele Bloom, the “sweet spot” represents a shared sense that lasting compromises can be forged, and that sustainable natural resource outcomes can in fact be achieved. Highly effective public lands decisionmakers navigate by the sense that there is always one to be found.

Broadly agreeable solutions are not immediately apparent to public lands stakeholders in every situation, however, and the roundtable illustrated that reality during its patches of discord. For example, the first minutes of discussion raised the specter of an old but persistent dichotomy in public lands discussions: that of fortress-style preservation versus unabashed and reckless development. When public land use is discussed in such extreme and general terms room for compromise, common ground, and creativity quickly disappear. Adam Cramer, General Counsel for the Outdoor Alliance, helped steer the roundtable away from that sort of binary thinking. “That’s a ‘good guy, bad guy’ two-dimensional fight,” Cramer said. “You lose a lot of nuance in between.” Today’s public lands debates call for more specificity from their participants. A polarized debate leaves no room for middle-ground concepts like “experiential use” of the public lands. Experiential use, which encompasses education and recreation, is a public lands “use” indeed, Cramer said, but it tilts toward the non-consumptive side of the “use” spectrum.

The topic of intergovernmental collaboration also proved to be a hot one. A lengthy exchange on the relationships between local and federal governments spurred longtime Wyoming Rancher and former President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association Lois Herbst to plant a stake on county commissioners’ behalf. “Local governments deserve more respect from the federal agencies. It’s required under FLPMA [Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976] and it’s not being done in our county,” she said. Cramer countered that local-federal partnerships need to go both ways. “Local governments can’t ignore federal agencies either,” he added. The panel’s county representative, San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes, bemoaned the difficulties that counties have in filing for cooperative agency status in federal land use decision processes. “This is a huge issue,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to do.”

When compromise appears distant and unreachable, participants agreed that a clear-eyed appraisal is in order. In the democratic experiment that is public lands management, it is everybody’s responsibility to seek traction in seemingly intractable circumstances, they said. “I’ve seen the enemy, and it’s us,” said Johanna Wald of the Natural Resources Defense Council, making the point that the number of public lands stakeholders vastly exceeds the number of managers who must keep up with their constantly evolving interests, needs, and demands. “I see a world in which lots and lots of decisions are being made – on grazing, on oil and gas development, on renewable energy project permits,” Wald said. When decisions drag on and tension runs high, a dose of historical perspective can make conflicts seem more manageable, added Dale Bosworth, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service. “We’ve come a long way since setting out clear-cut patches with a two page environmental impact statement,” he said.

On that, everybody could agree.

The Gang of 14 also managed to find agreement on a number of additional topics – 10 of them to be exact. We list them here in the form of recommendations for the future management of the public lands. Please read on and conduct your own clear-eyed appraisal of their work. As you do, we encourage you to think of ways that you might put these broad suggestions into practice. We further encourage you to contact us with your results. We are eager to compile your ideas about the ways these recommendations can be applied on the ground.

Roundtable Recommendations

  1. Promote and embrace collaborative decision-making processes that effectively engage stakeholders.  Public lands management decisions are made at busy (sometimes treacherous) intersections of conflicting values, uncertain science, and impending legal and political mandates. To navigate these intersections sensibly, decisionmakers should follow inclusive, participatory, stakeholder-based processes. The more often that public lands policy can be built upon a foundation of common interests and compromise, the more pragmatic and successful public lands management will ultimately be.
  2. Federal public land agencies should engage local and tribal governments when making decisions public lands decisions, and vice versa.  Meaningful and enduring engagement of federal agencies with local and tribal governments infuses federal public land management with innovative ideas and legitimacy. Decisionmakers at each level of government should recognize the challenges faced by their counterparts at other levels. For local and tribal governments, filing for cooperating agency status in federal land use decision-making processes is no small undertaking. In a similar fashion, local and tribal governments must recognize the difficulties that federal agencies face in complex and fractious federal rulemaking processes.
  3. Federal public land agencies need to collaborate with each other as well.  Today’s natural resource challenges require federal agencies to work across jurisdictional and bureaucratic lines at the federal level. Agencies must reverse traditionally inward-looking practices in the pursuit of interconnectivity and integration so that they can effectively respond to resource challenges that transcend institutional boundaries.
  4. Recognize and respect the interconnections among the wellbeing of public lands, rural economies, and private lands.  Most social, economic, and natural resources issues span or transcend our dichotomous “public” and “private” land categories. Land managers should take into account this blurring of boundaries during policy development if they wish to promote healthy lands, thriving communities, and prosperous rural economies. Long-term public-private partnerships on shared natural resource concerns can provide an important pathway to this kind of integration.
  5. Public land stewardship should be built from an ethic that emphasizes resilience, adaptability, and flexibility.  The federal public land agencies should adopt a land ethic grounded in the concept of resilience. To operate in a world of heightened unpredictability and shifting environmental baselines, public land stewardship should foster adaptability, flexibility, hardiness, and quick recovery from the unexpected – in social and ecological systems alike.
  6. Embrace the next generation and the communication technologies they use. Mid-to-late-career public land decisionmakers must recognize that the future of the public lands will soon be in the hands of a younger generation, if it isn’t already. Boosting young people’s awareness of the importance of the public lands requires connecting with those young people in a way that suits their tastes and technological predilections. Deft and nimble deployment of social media and mobile technologies will be critical to this effort, as well as to fostering public participation in land use decisions across age groups.
  7. Decisionmakers should keep their eyes trained on the future, as well as the past. Thinking in longer units of time than the next election cycle or the next land use plan takes more than a customary amount of concentration and creativity. This sort of reflection could be institutionalized at the federal land agencies with an “Office of Technology and Futurity” – a nerve center tasked with generating new and unexpected ideas for managing the public lands. Historical context should figure centrally in this thought exercise. The tricky institutional beginnings of the General Land Office, for example, can provide helpful perspective for decisionmakers attempting to navigate an unpredictable present and an unknown future.
  8. Encourage scientific processes that engage stakeholders. Making good public lands decisions in high-stakes, high-uncertainty situations involves addressing pressing scientific questions. For science to serve policy makers, it must be relevant, credible, clearly communicated, and often modest in its claims to certainty and finality. Federal land agencies should encourage scientists, stakeholders, and decisionmakers to interact and collaborate in ways that generate this type of broadly-accepted, policy-relevant science. Decisionmakers should also recognize that scientific data will not provide answers to pressing values questions. These must be addressed head-on in democratic forums, not argued through proxy battles about science.
  9. Decisionmakers should work to defend funding for environmental monitoring in the face of shrinking agency and bureau budgets.  Environmental monitoring is key to today’s adaptive management strategies, which aim to evolve alongside changing ecological, economic, and social conditions. The better the informational inputs into the management process, the better the management.
  10. People are as important as process. The federal land agencies should be adequately staffed and adequately funded to carry out the important responsibilities they have been given. Additional funding should support continuing education for agency employees, particularly on the craft of collaboration and the use of new communication technologies. Increasing the ranks of bureau staff would help to address the significant generational changing-of-the-guard that is expected to occur at federal agencies in the next decade. New hires could also assist in strengthening interagency and stakeholder collaboration, and could push agencies forward in innovation and efficiency.