A Brief History of Public Lands in American Politics

If you’ve been paying any attention to US political news over the last few years, you might have caught glimpses of the occasional headline focused on federally managed public lands.  From the armed standoffs in Oregon and Nevada, Patagonia’s boycotting of Utah, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review of the National Monuments, the discourse over the nation’s public lands can sometimes get contentious.

But controversy over public lands isn’t a new thing… it actually goes back to their very beginning.  As soon as the ink dried on the Louisiana Purchase (yes that far back) people argued over how open land should be owned and managed.  Should they be owned by the federal government at all?   Should they be exploited, scientifically conserved for long term use, or be preserved as wild and untouched spaces?  Timothy Egan, author of historian put it best when he wrote:

If Land and Religion are what people most often kill each other over, then the West is only different in that the Land is the Religion.  As such, the basic struggle is between the West of possibility and the West of possession.

We cover the issue of public lands pretty extensively at Basin and Range Magazine since outdoor recreation depends upon places to recreate outdoors.  If you live in the West and you are a hiker, mountain biker, hunter, angler, OHV’er, or climber, it is probable that your passion has taken you to federally managed public lands – like a National Forest or a National Park.  The 13 western US states have come to depend on those public lands for their economic well being – leveraging them for a variety of uses ranging from destination tourism (Yellowstone or Yosemite for instance), to everyday outdoor recreation for local communities, as well as long-term resource extraction.  In August of 2017, the Outdoor Industry of America published a report that revealed how much impact the outdoor recreation industry has on the American economy and the numbers are staggering:

  • $887 billion in consumer spending annually,
  • 7.6 million American jobs,
  • $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue
  • $59 billion in state and local tax revenue

It’s arguable that this economic powerhouse couldn’t exist like it does today without access to large tracks of public lands for people to recreate on.  But, like anything else that has always “just been there,” it is easy to overlook the difficulties it took to establish these great places.  Since knowledge is power, we thought we should do our part to get a handle on why these important places are facing new political challenges today.  So, we’ve hit the books, did some digging, and found out the fascinating stories behind these wild places and how they came to be – as well as what’s at stake.

Fall in Grand Teton National Park.

Fall in Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Charles Watkins


Public Lands Part 1: The Prequel

Let’s start the story in the early 1800’s.  Thirty years after the United States gained independence from Great Britain, the western boundary of the new nation was expanded to the Rocky Mountains through the Louisiana Purchase – roughly doubling the size of the US at the time.  The purchase included lands that would eventually become several of today’s western states like New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.  While generally seen as a successful negotiation, it didn’t come without some controversy though.

The Federalist Party argued that it was unconstitutional for the US Government to acquire any territory any time, anywhere, at all.  After some debate, however, the land was ceded to the federal government after-all, creating a vast shared space just west of the Mississippi River.  This new land spawned a cultural movement of exploration and settlement that would become known as Manifest Destiny.  This powerful movement would be an overriding social force for the next three generations of Americans.

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap, 1851-52 by George Caleb Bingham (1811-79)

The Homesteading Era

The call of westward expansion was answered by individual “Yeoman Farmers” and commercial land speculators who poured into the western territories – bumping elbows with numerous Native Americans along the way.  Homesteaders were incentivized by the US Government’s initial rounds of legislative efforts to populate the West starting with the Preemption Act of 1841 and the Homestead Act of 1862 which gave away 160 acres to just about any US citizen.  In all, more than 270 million acres of public land, or nearly 10% of the total area of the U.S., was given away free to 1.6 million homesteaders.

The Homestead Era was originally conceived in support of the Jeffersonian view of an agriculturally centered society full of small, industrious, independent farmers.  The idea became known as the Homestead Principle and it formed the basis of the Free Soil political party (later becoming the Republican Party after 1854).  They demanded that the new lands opening up in the West be made available to independent farmers, rather than wealthy Southern plantation owners who would develop it with the use of slaves.

While partially successful to their original goal, the well-meaning Homestead Acts also created an era of rampant abuse, monopolistic businesses and political corruption.  This is also the era of the West that is most often remembered in the pop cultural consciousness and romanticized in Hollywood.  It was an era punctuated by the boom and busts of gold mining towns, land speculation, railroad building, “cowboys and Indians,” and cattle drives.  But this era of abuse couldn’t last forever.  An 1882 US General Land Office report found that…

“…great quantities of valuable coal and iron lands, forests of timber, and the available agricultural lands in whole regions of grazing country have been monopolized.”  Again, in 1885, “…in timbered regions, the forests were being appropriated by domestic and foreign corporations through suborned entries made in fraud and evasion of law.”

Conservationism’s Early Roots

In the years immediately after the Civil War, the US Government began to enlist teams of surveyors, painters, photographers, and cartographers to explore, map and document the immense landscapes of the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Pacific Coast. It wasn’t long before the monopolistic corruption of the 1840, 50’s and 60’s began to get noticed.  Alarmed by wide-scale deforestation and several near-extinctions of large mammal species (most notably the American Bison), people began to advocate for the protection of several of the West’s most beautiful places.

The biggest changes in the public’s perception about the value of the West would come in the 1870’s – spawned in part by an entirely new organism to the American landscape… the Tourist.  It wouldn’t be long before we would see the first few examples of the federal government reacting to this new political pressure.  Soon, Congress began setting aside notable sections of land for the “…benefit and enjoyment of the people,” kicking it off with the designation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 – the world’s first “natural” park of its’ kind.

american bison yellowstone

Herd of American Bison browsing in safety, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo

It wasn’t until the passage of the General Revision Act of 1891 that the monopolistic tide against Public Lands would finally lose its’ tenacious grip on Washington.  The General Revision Act reversed key policy decisions stemming from the Homestead Acts.  The General Revision Act gave the president the ability to set apart unclaimed forested lands as public reserves for “scientific” resource management as well as other purposes.  These “other purposes” would eventually become the seeds of modern-day Recreational Use.

Mountain biking Colorado

Mountain biking on Colorado’s Western Slope

Today, the General Revision Act is seen as the first of several reforms that would lay the groundwork for the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and more.  This is also the time where the modern notions of Public Lands begin to form.  Following the Act’s passage in 1891, over 50 million acres of privately held land was transferred back to the public domain.  This was land that was generally owned by railroad companies and obtained through the heavily discounted deals of the 1860’s.

This shift in property ownership sparked new controversies on the legality of public lands.  The arguments came down to this: those in favor if free market economies (namely the railroads at this time), rallied against the Revision Act.  Those in favor of sustainable resource management strategies often sided in favor of the Act.  And while the railroads had a powerful voice in Washington, this wasn’t their time anymore. The heroes of Conservationism like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt were however ready to take their place in history.


Coming up In Part 2 of the series: Muir, Roosevelt and the Conservationist Movement sets the stage for Outdoor Recreation