In September 2012, courtrooms and corridors of power gave way to spotlit stages and sunny rooms as the setting for celebrating two centuries of public lands management in the United States and discussing the future of the nation’s public lands. Over three days in Boulder, Colorado, a diverse spectrum of leading stakeholders – many of whom are more accustomed to seeing one another in court or at hearings – engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about some of the most contentious public land management issues facing the nation today. What we heard surprised us. Push past the inflamed soundbites and starkly drawn legal positions that too often count for a discussion of the public, and you’ll find – as we did – that the public lands are a surprising bipartisan place and that users of all types actually want much the same thing.
A Program as Diverse as the Public Domain
The conference program brought together ranchers, tribal leaders, outdoor recreation advocates, conservation activists, energy producers, local elected officials, state officeholders, federal policymakers, agency leaders, administration officials past and present, artists, scholars, and a congress of students in a sweeping “polylogue” about the past, present, and future of the nation’s public lands. In presentations, speeches, performances, interviews, documentaries, and art, the participants discussed the history of public lands uses, the evolution of public lands policy, tribal perspectives, energy development, climate change, the role of science in decisionmaking, the force and weight assigned to different stakeholders, the changing demographics of the public lands, whether states can “take back” public lands, and even the Burning Man festival before sitting down at a roundtable to articulate a series of recommendations for the future of public lands management.
The conference opened with six panel sessions that explored the history, current uses, and future trends for the use and management of the public lands. Interspersed among the panel sessions were 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 and Theodore Roosevelt.
The Student Congress convened twenty-two students from universities throughout the United States to provide a joint vision of the public lands for the next fifty years from a perspective of the next generation of users and managers. This Student Congress produced a variety of thoughtful recommendations – recommendations that we believe will be valuable to public land managers and BLM officials today and into the future – which we have reproduced in their entirety.
The roundtable discussion brought together a diverse and distinguished group of fourteen stakeholders, public officials, and scholars to share their perspective on the public lands, their use, and their management. The ensuing conversation produced ten joint recommendations for the public lands for the next fifty years.
Alongside the events on the program, high school and undergraduate college students competed in an art contest and produced video documentaries, sharing compelling visual explorations of the meaning of the public lands and some of the pressing management issues they give rise to.
Finally, the Public Lands Foundation assessed the recommendations presented by the Student Congress and roundtable and developed seven policy recommendations intended to assure that the public lands will continue to meet a diverse set of needs and interests for the current generations while maintaining their tradition of accommodating emerging uses and changing values for generations to come.
A New Era on the Public Lands
Throughout these events, the theme that emerged repeatedly from these diverse conference participants was this: We are living through a shift in how we view and use the public lands. American public land policy has moved through several distinct periods in the two centuries since the General Land Office was founded to impose some order on westward settlement, as the Era of Disposal of the public lands evolved to the Era of Conservation and Preservation. As conference participants expressed their views about the public lands today, the thread that bound them together was their sense that we currently stand at the often-confusing edge of another transition in public lands policy. Many of the controversies over our public lands come into clearer focus when viewed as the signifiers of a new Era of Integration, wherein public lands policies recognize human beings as integral actors within intricately connected landscapes and ecosystems that must be held in balance through thoughtful trade-offs.
To guide us in this new era, conference participants appealed time and again for the formulation of a new ethos shaping our approach to public land policy, an updated land ethic for the 21st century that recognizes humans’ coexistence within a broad ecological community as well as a diverse global society.
We heard echoes of this new landscape-sized sensibility in tribal efforts to reckon with the legacy of Manifest Destiny, appeals for a comprehensive national energy policy, discussions of “zoning” the public lands for different uses, calls to prepare for the demographic shifts arriving on public lands with the Millennial Generation, the Ten Principles proclaimed by Burning Man festivalgoers, a proposal for an “Office of Futurity” housed in the Department of Interior, in the Student Congress’s emphasis on resilience planning, and in numerous other guises over these three fruitful days.
The fullest expression of this novel paradigm occurred during the conference’s final event: a daylong summit of fourteen distinguished and diverse thinkers on public lands issues. Their connections to the public lands spanned from fire lookout towers to oil and gas rigs, private ranching operations to public service in the U.S. Senate, and their convictions differed just as widely. But their public lands philosophies converged, remarkably, on a handful of ideas key to the Era of Integration. According to the roundtable members, this new public lands sensibility is to be steered by the concept of resilience – and the adaptability, flexibility, and comfort with change and uncertainty that true resilience requires. Such an ethos is also built of broad inclusion, and a commitment to deliberative democracy that productively links stakeholders, local and tribal governments, and federal agencies into networks capable of addressing the many crucial public lands issues that transcend scales and jurisdictional boundaries. Add to that an emphasis on thinking in units of time longer than the next election cycle or the next land use plan – both forward into the future and backward into the past – and an astute and fully-contextualized sensibility results.
Clearly articulated, this notion of engaged global citizenship can provide a touchstone for policy creation, supply a coherent framework for management decisions, and impart a sense of direction and certainty for stakeholders. Public land managers, policymakers, and government officials who meet stakeholders on this common ground have the opportunity to lead the nation along a path toward sustainable management of our public lands of many uses in the 21st century.