Who Should Control the West?

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Patricia Nelson Limerick is the faculty director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, and the author of "The Legacy of Conquest" and "A Ditch in Time."

If you enjoy watching very big ideas get tested in down-to-earth ways, you have every reason to keep an eye on the public lands, the testing grounds for assessing the compatibility of democracy and conservation.

Many of the practices that ended up clumped into the category called “conservation” originated in distinctly undemocratic circumstances. Kings, queens and aristocrats imposed their priorities on the lower classes, penalizing poaching of wildlife and cutting of timber. Governors of colonies distant from European homelands sometimes restricted the use of resources by indigenous people to maintain conditions preferred by the naturalists who advised these administrators.

Soon after the United States set an example for the world in rebelling against empire, the nation almost instantly acquired its own empire in the North American interior. After a century of making land acquisition and resource development the nation’s priority, the federal government’s land management agencies added new missions mandating the practices of conservation.

Twenty-first-century federal land managers perform their difficult jobs without the arbitrary and unilateral authority wielded by aristocracy and colonial government in past centuries. They work in a dynamic political environment in which multitudes of citizens, some living close to the public lands and far more residing at a distance from them, insist on their right to determine the extent and force of conservation practices on these lands. 

At its core, conservation involves restraint on access to and use of land, water, minerals, grass, trees, wildlife, trails, roads and scenic vistas. In other words, it is a certainty that some people will not get from the public lands the opportunities that they believe they deserve. 

Empires and kingdoms held in place unmistakable hierarchies and allocations of authority to make and enforce policies of conservation. A democratic republic, peopled as a settler society, operates with no such clarity. For federal managers, every working day begins and ends with the question: Who holds the authority and the legitimacy to impose the restraint intrinsic to the practice of conservation on the public lands?

The episode now unrolling in Burns, Ore., reminds us that this is an intractable, inescapable and unsettled question. Every episode of contention over public lands management gives us the chance to monitor our vast national experiment, testing the viability of conservation in a democratic society.




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