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Climate & Energy
Book Review: Federal Lands and the Eye of the Beholder
V. Alaric Sample

Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy
By Char Miller, Oregon State University Press, 2012. 186 pages. $21.95

Like American democracy itself, the quintessentially American idea of national public lands—parks, forests, wildlife refuges—is still a vast experiment playing itself out on the world stage. In the hands of environmental historian Char Miller, it is a story full of intrigue, passion, and danger. It is a chronicle of soaring victories and crushing defeats, of titanic forces and personalities scheming and struggling for dominance—not just in terms of land and resources, but competing economic and political philosophies. And it is a tale of suspense, because after all of the plot twists and turns of fortune, it is clear that the final chapter is still to be written.

Miller’s tale is told in a series of 19 short, evocative essays that explore the history of federal public lands, primarily the National Forests, as a jeweler might examine the facets of a stone that is obviously of great worth, but whose cut and polish are still a work in progress. He explores the idea of federal public lands starting long before there was such a thing in America, when Ambassador George Perkins Marsh returned from his Mediterranean posting with a troubling vision of what America would look like if the extant rate of resource exploitation were to continue unfettered. The spark kindled by the 1864 publication of Marsh’s Man and Nature, or Earth as Modified by Human Action (Harvard University Press) was fanned by public-spirited philosophers and activists, some since sainted and others largely forgotten— Charles Sprague Sargent, George Bird Grinnell, Franklin Hough, Bernard Fernow, Carl Schenck, Nathaniel Egleston, John Muir, James Pinchot. These figures largely set the stage for Miller’s main characters: Henry Graves, Harold Ickes, Presidents Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Taft, and of course Gifford Pinchot. Miller is perhaps the foremost biographer of the younger Pinchot (Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (Island Press, 2001); Gifford Pinchot: The Evolution of an American Conservationist (Grey Towers Press, 1992), and he covers this ground with expected thoroughness.

But these “creative forces” occupy only the first of four sections, and the bulk of the book is focused on the continual jousting for control and direction over America’s federal public lands throughout the 20th century. The details of the deals that were struck, and the personalities who struck them in smoke-filled rooms in the nation’s capital, hint at the deeper historical scholarship that can be found in Miller’s more academic works. The struggle over the legislation that would determine the use of the federal public lands was in many ways a microcosm of the larger struggle to define America as a nation of laws, rather than just another nation controlled by a few individuals wielding power, wealth, and inherited privilege. And what an epic struggle it was. As Miller shows, it continues today in the efforts by federal land management agencies like the US Forest Service to make sense of a voluminous collection of often contradictory laws and policies that themselves reflect Americans’ mixed feelings about the proper use and management of these lands in the national public interest. Like the Old Testament, Pinchot’s original mandate that the National Forests be managed “for the greatest good, for the greatest number, in the long run” can be interpreted in many different ways, for many different purposes, depending upon one’s perspective and vested interests.

Miller depicts the century of twists and turns in the management of the National Forests to be, at least in part, a reflection of the tortured organizational history of the Forest Service itself. The struggle for the soul of the agency began early, with the pitched battle between Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service, and William Greeley, the agency’s third chief. Greeley despised Pinchot, and he dedicated his tenure as chief to steering the agency on a radically different course. The battle opened a rift in the Forest Service, and ultimately within the nascent American forestry profession more broadly. Greeley, in Miller’s view, “showed his true spots” when he retired from the Forest Service and went to work for an association representing the mining industry’s interests on the public lands.

But Miller reserves his most in depth analysis for an examination of what went wrong, and why, when the Forest Service somehow lost faith with conservation leaders during the 1960s, and for decades afterwards was widely depicted not as the protector of the federal forests, but as one of its despoilers. The crescendo of the “century of controversy” of Miller’s subtitle comes to its peak during this period. The once confident, muscular, and widely admired agency is, by the end of its first century, mired in self doubt and uncertain as to which of its fragmented missions it is to pursue. An external study commissioned by the Forest Service ostensibly to identify ways to reduce firefighting fatalities instead exposes a degree of internal turmoil and abysmal morale that threatens the organization’s very existence. The genie somehow gets tucked back inside the lamp, but in Miller’s analysis the Forest Service still emerges from this period of its history more like several different organizations, each with its own unspoken mission and values, existing uneasily together in a marriage of convenience.

In a chapter whimsically entitled Peace Out, Miller sits in on a public meeting on land management planning for one of the National Forests in Montana, and is surprised by the uncanny atmosphere of comity and cooperation among former adversaries. Something is changing here, and it is not clear whether the reason is the Forest Service’s emerging emphasis on ecosystem management—or whether this is just an idea whose time has come, as society at large starts to worry about its fundamental prospects for environmental sustainability. As evidence for the latter argument, Miller recounts a similar situation he encountered in the Amazon, in a conversation with Tasso Azevedo, a forceful and persistent environmental activist who subsequently was appointed to head the Brazilian Forest Service.

The tide of history may be sweeping the agency along with it, but the Forest Service has clearly added some momentum of its own to this shift. The advent of sustainability as an organizing concept has helped bring about a merging of the notions of environmentalism as it applied to natural resources, with the ideas of conservation based on the protection and sustainable use of forests. The two spheres, traditional conservationists and environmental activists, though far apart during the last half of the 20th century, began to merge just as the principles of ecosystem management were becoming established as a legitimate component of the core values of the Forest Service (eventually influencing a similar evolution in the managers of other federal, state, tribal, and private forests). A series of years characterized by epic wildfires, and extensive insect and disease outbreaks that eliminated large areas of late-successional forest habitat, also forced a reconsideration of theories that sustainability in forest ecosystems could best be accomplished through a cessation of human management interventions.

By the end of the book, the Forest Service has pulled up just in time and is slowly regaining altitude. It has refocused itself on a unifying mission of ecosystem restoration, even though the evidence suggests (and budget allocations seem to confirm) that it is an agency almost solely focused on wildland firefighting. New challenges lie ahead. Climate change is already having its effect on National Forests, further complicating the protection of water resources and biodiversity, as well as the control of wildfires and invasive species. The influences of climate change are also threatening to debase a century of research on the functioning of forest ecosystems and their response to management actions and natural disturbance. The federal forests, which should be absorbing vast quantities of greenhouse gases, are in many instances a net source of new carbon emissions because of fires and extensive tree mortality. Clearly, there is more work to be done here.

Ultimately the federal land management agencies including the Forest Service, like the public lands they manage, will be what we need them to be. America’s public lands serve a very different set of purposes for the nation than when they were established a century ago. We can confidently say that, in another hundred years, these lands will be serving yet a different set of purposes, tailored to the nation’s needs at the time. And we can predict with equal confidence that these purposes will be the result of the same rough jostling and political give-and- take that is chronicled in Public Lands, Public Debates—aspects that will always be central to the rambunctious nature of American democracy. That we will still have the privilege of debating the use of these lands, conserved and managed not for the benefit of a few insiders but to serve the interests of the nation as a whole, may be the greatest gift that Gifford Pinchot and the other leaders of the Conservation Movement have bequeathed to this and future generations.

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