Wednesday, April 25, 2012
As a person whose academic focus is on the regulation of private lands, I suffer from something of an existential dilemma. I grew up in Idaho, now live and teach in Idaho, and understand myself as a westerner. But to the extent that the western United States possesses any unique, defining characteristic that might distinguish it – or its people – from other regions of the country, it must be the public lands. I believe that the land shapes us as individuals as much as we shape the land. And so as westerners, we are shaped by the National Forests, National Parks, and BLM lands that make up the public lands more so than any other lands.
But is that still the case? Are westerners still defined – if we ever were – based on our placement in a public-lands landscape?
A few years ago I noticed, quite after the fact, that the Targhee National Forest had substantially revised its travel plan, reducing historic access to roads and trails. And it appeared that no one had complained. But just a decade earlier when the Targhee started closing old roads to protect Grizzly habitat, Teton County banned federal vehicles from its roads, Helen Chenoweth showed up with her posse to hold Congressional hearings, and a bomb showed up at the front door of the local Forest office. More recently, while using land ownership maps to place private land-use regulation in our public lands context, one of my students asked what all of the green on the map represented. Those are the National Forests, I said. Oh, he said, so what is the yellow? That’s the Bureau of Land Management.
He grew up in Idaho, where 22% of all land is managed by the BLM, and 62% in total managed by the federal government. He did not seem aware of that fact.
People define themselves through conflict, at least in the decision that there is something worth fighting about. So by investigating those conflicts we are investigating emerging cultural values. In considering contemporary western conflicts, we should ask whether the nature of those conflicts suggests that “western values” might have changed.
From a simple cartographic perspective, the West remains distinguishable from the rest of the country based on the substantial amounts of federal lands found there. But it is possible that the era has ended in which the West defines itself primarily – culturally, socially, and cartographically – by the presence of those public lands. Obviously, we can and should still care about those public spaces, but the West is now much more similar to the rest of the country, where the primary land-related concern for most residents is the use and regulation of their homes and towns. Comprehensive plans make the front page; forest plans do not. New subdivisions matter more than new timber harvests. And whether my street is plowed regularly is more significant than whether I can still drive on that old logging road. Local cultures and economies, and social conflicts, in this post-public-lands West originate in the same private lands uses and disputes that arise anywhere in the United States, and increasingly, anywhere in the world. The primary landscape in which western human-land relationships are realized is now more likely to be a private landscape than a public one—development, change, and conflict in the West’s private lands now describe, define, and determine the West’s personality more than the public lands that are increasingly foreign to the region’s residents.
So why does this matter? Wallace Stegner claimed that the West is the native home of hope, and that its true potential lies in finally creating a society to match the scenery. You can’t be a westerner without believing the first part. And perhaps you can’t be a westerner without disbelieving the second. That’s why a recognizing a post-public-lands West matters. Because we have to get past that disbelief, and it’s on our private lands where our homes, towns, relationships, and societies are built.
-- Jerry Long