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The Future of Public Lands in the United States
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The topic of wildlands is an emotional issue for many residents across the United States. Immortalized in iconic photographs, timeless paintings and oral histories, these lands make up a large part of America’s collective identity. From the boggy marshlands of the Florida Everglades to the jagged peaks of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and California’s Old Growth Sequoias, the landscape of North America has become a main character in U.S. cultural and factual history.

Those lands are now in trouble. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate, the threat of natural disasters are continuing to loom, and as stress increases on the most vulnerable pieces of the interconnected puzzle, the big picture is becoming harder and harder to salvage.

Wild land means different things to different people, and there is a strong need for dialogue between the groups working to keep it intact in order to devise a consistent policy for managing these vital natural resources. Various innovative approaches are constantly being tested as a means of conveying what's at stake, and how the state of our land affects us all. (Look to our archives for examples, including a recent NRDC program uniting scientists and journalists at Yellowstone, and our local blog coverage of a Washington state organization that's put ecosystem services in economic terms for the more numbers-minded.)

To create healthy, sustainable wildlands, we have to do more than just talk about the tragic state of their degradation and disappearance. Our desire alone for it to be different does not paint a clear enough picture for what we want to happen. So, in addition to conservation and restoration techniques, we must also imagine and define what the world will look like if we succeed.

With the help of our friend and ally Terry Tempest Williams, we recently hosted a roundtable teleconference with some of the brightest minds working on public lands issues across the American West: Emily Goodwin, program officer, Marine Conservation Initiative, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust; Daryn Melvin, a Hopi conservationist with the Black Mesa Trust; and Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. Jacob Smith, mayor of Golden, Colo., joined the conversation via email.

Alex Steffen, Worldchanging: If in 20 years, we really do our jobs right as a nation, and we have a really healthy, sustainable wildlands policy, what would that look like? What would real success be?

Bill Hedden, Grand Canyon Trust: One obvious part of it is that we are now very actively looking to our public lands to produce tremendous amounts of energy, oil and gas, increasing pressure to develop tar sands and oil shale. Given climate projections for the public lands in the West, if we actually go in that direction, not only will we be tearing up that public lands resource as well as water, but [mining] those energy sources implies greatly expanded greenhouse gas emissions.

I think in 20 years, success would mean that we had, in the short term, protected those wild places and roadless areas, but also that we had developed different ways of living and different energy sources that did not push climate change over the brink. I think solving that energy picture, and at the same time protecting wildlands, and roadless forests and so on, is really a survival move for us.

Emily Goodwin, Moore Foundation: I think success in 20 years would be a paradigm shift for how we approach natural ecosystems and value natural capital. In order to really reach people from all walks of life, we need to include a very frank discussion of what we get from the Earth and how we can actively work to maintain that natural capital over time. The main goal is resiliency of ecosystems -- not a set endpoint, as we know these systems are very dynamic -- but to maintain the functions and services they provide, such as flood protection, clean water, and clean air.

Nicole Rosmarino, WildEarth Guardians: In 20 years, I want to see fully functioning native ecosystems with a full suite of wildlife intact. It's pretty Pollyanna, given climate change projections, but I think we need to do the best we can to preserve the whole tapestry of life.

To get there we certainly need a paradigm shift in how we perceive nature, and also in how we perceive the role of federal law. I think that federal environmental legislation is our greatest hope of achieving our short term goals of preventing further ecological decline. In addition, we need to make sure that private lands are protected along with the public lands. And I think that the land trust movement must be fully engaged with the broader conservation community so we have biodiversity protection being emphasized in the land trust movement. Right now I see the land trust movement being very agro-centric.

I also want to mention that it's not just about preserving public lands; it's about healing. In the western U.S. in particular, I think there is more and more conversation about transitioning from an extracting economy to a healing economy, where the work of ecological restoration actually helps local communities, and undoes the decades or centuries of damage that has been done.

Jacob Smith, Mayor of Golden, Colo.: Success would presumably include strong protection for a sufficient number, distribution, and quality (with adequate linkages) of key habitat areas for at-risk species and ecosystem types. It would also include appropriate management regimes in less critical but still important habitat areas, presumably with less protection and more intensive land uses.

Politically, I suspect it will mean that we have succeeded in reestablishing conservation values as deeply embedded, bipartisan political values. Our public opinion research consistently shows high levels of support for basic conservation values but we are very uneven in converting this generalized public support into concrete political support. Some of this will be about activating more fully those underlying conservation values in more populous urban areas because of the number of voters in those areas, but it's hard to see us getting there without building strong relationships in rural, agricultural areas, at least in the western United States. Even as their numbers decline, the political strength of the agriculture and ranching constituencies remains prominent. I also suspect that success over a 2030 timeframe will require a great deal more effort on community sustainability. In addition, the conservation community will need to do a better job of helping communities chart economic development routes that are consistent with the land conservation vision it is forwarding.

The experts agreed that to achieve their collaborative picture of success within this timeframe, we’ll need help from the top. Encouragement and strong support from the Obama administration could greatly influence how the United States gets from where we are now to this picture of success.

The top priorities for the new president, according to this expert panel, includes steps that can be taken more immediately, such as reinforcing laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Forest Roadless Rule; as well as the creating new policies, like strict no drilling laws in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, developing catch share programs to restore fisheries, and a policy that would aid in the development of regional ecosystem councils to implement integrated marine spatial planning.

Some of the experts recommended longer-term and broad scope policies, like creating a pro-science policy that supports scientific exploration and learning as well as explanation and interpretation for the public. Another idea was to instate a precautionary principle policy: for example, in a situation where we suspect a new form of land use will put the environment at risk, but there is scientific uncertainty, policy-makers should err on the side of caution and not allow that land use to proceed.

The broad definition of "real success" as identified in this conversation would be a wildlands policy that resulted in a full complement of native habitats and species, complete with re-established linkages and corridors that they can use to safely migrate and coexist. Achieving this end will require major restoration efforts to return areas of land, water and air to resilient systems that will thrive and sustain themselves into the future.

Photo credit: Sarah Kuck

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I'm a new reader of the worldchanging. May I ask if readers were invited on to the round table teleconference recently held on public lands?
If yes explain how to gain access to future calls.

Posted by: Raven on 28 Nov 08

One of the major challenges will be how to finance conservation. The US has done a poor job in recent years. The national park system, for example, is chronically underfunded and has a massive backlog of deferred maintenance. Revenues from economic developments on public lands should be reinvested in the public lands to protect biodiversity, provide ecosystem services on a sustainable ongoing basis, improve facilities for sustainable public use, and where necessary, to mitigate the harm done from their exploitation. As Jacob Smith suggests, this can best be accomplished through partnerships with the communities in close proximity to public lands - solutions that advance conservation of public lands at their expense are very poor policy.

Posted by: John Waugh on 29 Nov 08

What does ANWR stand for?

Posted by: Ernesto on 30 Nov 08

As an Educator I see a healthy sustainable future happening only if the general public, young and old, is made aware of the issues, given an opportunity to connect with nature, and given positive and concrete actions to take in their day to day lives. Alternative and sustainably produced food, energy, and stuff need to become the norm. Education on all levels in needed fast to build a public that understands that the future is in their hands. We have seen how galvanizing the American public can create change. We need more.

Posted by: constance washburn on 1 Dec 08

First, let me say that I totally respect and agree with the goals of environmentalists, and I use the designation "environmentalist" positively, with pleasure and hope, and respect.
I must also point out that some environmental goals and ideals are at odds with the history of evolution, and ecological growth and maturation. Namely, that thousands, if not millions of species have died out over our history, virtually all because of changes in the ecological niche they occupy, losses due to competing species and habitats, natural disasters, and similar, non-humankind caused events.
When Cain and Abel plowed lands, who is to say that what they plowed under didn't include some rare species of plant or tree?
The goal of environmentalists should not necessarily be the preservation of all species, or even "select" species.
It should be a "zero sum" result of man's use of the environment. Maybe snail darters ecological niche had already expired, or was about to expire, maybe Spotted Owls are in the same category.Maybe their loss is a loss for sure, but not one that affects humanity's ecological niche negatively. Should we then spend environmental dollars that could be more productive alsewhere to preserve them?
I wouldn't want to be the judge of who stays and who goes, but I do believe I an at least as qualified to make this decision as are obstructionists who throw reason to the winds in favor of an irrational line in the sand.
This could mean everything from complete restoration of lands due to extractive resources usage, to one hundred percent recycling of man-made garbage and waste products from consumers and manufacturing and commercial processes. Offsets for land development means replacing, or restoring ground covers including foliage to a Zero Sum state, or it's equivalent.
I mourn the loss of a species; I recognize the inevitability of such events in the real world. It is unrealistic to expect that species don't vanish on their own, they are doing so as I write. It is unrealistic to expect cooperation from the human race and it's various society city-states in preserving everything and anything, when such goals seem to and in reality do, prevent the growth of individual welfare in food supplies, and more.
Better to establish 2008 as a Baseline of ecological and environmental status, develop plans and goals to mitigate further damage, as well as restoration of existing damages to original-and here lies a real opportunity-better than original ecological status through well though out planning. Would forest or variegated foliage and grasses be better for reclaimed mining tracts? Would re-manufactured oil shale work better than newly mined cement for road surfaces?
There is much opportunity in a new approach to husbanding our resources, encouraging environmental goals which are reality-based, and economic, as well as societal preservation, rationalization of future goals.
We should adopt a pragmatic viewpoint regarding goals and use of support resources directed at achievable goals, and programs which society can support as helping towards a more realistic future. I want my children and grandchildren to have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, food to eat, and parks and wild lands to enjoy.
Those goals can be achieved with logical attention to pragmatic goals like population management, recycling, restoration, environmental alchemy to transform waste into useable and re-useable products, and more.

Posted by: Barry Dennis on 1 Dec 08

The point of endangered species is not so much to save the species (laudable in itself ... but pretty difficult if it's not one of those charismatic megafauna), but to recognize through this clumsy law that a species is a component of an ecosystem - and to save the species you must examine what's happening to that ecosystem.

Forever wild places that keep the humans out would tend to work out their evolutionary issues by themselves, except that the big human thumb is everywhere now: pelagic trash, mercurial air and rain, and of course the general temperature rising, and its related instability.
Nature will balance, but not necessarily keeping us - or any other species - on the scales.

Posted by: Henry Lowengard on 4 Dec 08

I am convinced that the only way we will save the public lands is to base all of our spending decisions (bailouts, incentives, subsidies, tax breaks and even regulations) systemically to the question: How will this help protect our public lands, the atmosphere, water (and ice), and wild plant and animal habitat. Anything short of this is selling out to the legalized bribery of lobbies for the shortsighted thrill of personal and corporate wealth of a few.

Posted by: solargroupies on 4 Dec 08

Ernesto, ANWR stands for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Can I suggest that Worldchanging spend a little more time looking at comments? For Ernesto's simple question to sit here unanswered for five days suggests that comments we make here are talking to the wind.

On this topic, I can only say that if you care about natural landscapes, you have to care about sustainable cities, particularly issues of sprawl. The opposite of sprawl is a dense city with very firm edges, where many people can live in an urban setting with wilderness within a close walking or biking distance.

We also have to give greater priority to defending, and if necessary creating, natural landscapes immediately adjacent to cities, as these are the places where children from those cities will form their own values through felt experience.

Posted by: Jarrett on 4 Dec 08

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