We need education on public land history

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Water. We have some of the finest water in the world here in our neighborhood. I, for one, am thankful. Don’t get me wrong. I like beer, too. But you just can’t beat a good clear glass of water. Most of our water comes off our public lands. Public lands ultimately controlled by the people, or by the people elected by the people. Somebody has to do it. I recently ran across a four-year-old article in the Forest Service Publication Wildlife News. It was written by Ralph Maughan and titled, “A Brief History of the Public Lands, the BLM, and Grazing.” It is very interesting.

Most of our public lands (247 million acres) are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. While some of the federal lands are private lands that were purchased or gifted to the government, close to 100 percent of the BLM lands have been federal land since they were acquired by purchase (Louisiana Purchase) and conquest (Mexican Cession). These have never been private lands, state lands, county lands, or “local lands.” Up until The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 they were generally called the “public domain,” and they were unmanaged commons. There were many ways to privatize them such as the railroad land grants and the well-known Homestead Act (now repealed). By the 1930s the amount of privatization had greatly dwindled, and the remaining public domain was largely an overgrazed, giant vacant lot in the West.

With advent of the Taylor Grazing Act, a rancher had to have a base property to get a grazing permit. Times change, more barbed wire, more rules. Remember the movie “Open Range” with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner? A wealthy Irish landowner was portrayed as the bad guy in that story. Some people seem eager to place the federal government in the role of the bad guy these days. I do when they tell me I owe them more than I think I do for taxes. Although I am proud to pay my fair share.

I mentioned to a friend in Idaho, “Well, it looks like there is not enough support in Idaho to establish a wilderness in the Scotchman Peaks area.” He said, “I would like to see it as an established wilderness, but not controlled by the feds.” Interesting. I thought the state of Idaho had a record of selling off land. Maybe “we” should sell it to the mining company I saw doing radar testing for minerals up Dry Creek about six years ago. They probably know how to manage land.

Anyway, the grazing service lasted about 10 years and was replaced during Truman’s administration by the BLM. Besides grazing rights, the BLM had jurisdiction over public land minerals (worth far more than grazing), over land transfers and disposals, and other matters. The BLM finally got a rational, comprehensive mission in 1976 with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The Homestead Act and other land disposal laws were repealed by FLPMA and the policy became to keep all the remaining public lands and manage them for “multiple uses” and “sustained yield” - make sure the grass grows back, etc.

The BLM has remained relatively obscure to the general public despite its new legal mandate. It has never been funded very well for management (except for minerals). None the less, they do have law enforcement, and recently, “Seldom was Heard an Encouraging Word, A History of Bureau of Land Management Law Enforcement,” a 564-page book, has been written by Dennis McLane of Boise. The book will soon be available at the Heron Library.

The BLM is said to have received the federal lands no one wanted, but today there can be a struggle over almost every acre as they have been discovered more and more for mining, recreation, wilderness, water, wildlife and energy, as well as grazing. The idea that they should revert to a vacant lot has been thought as being absurd except for a small minority

Maughan says he hopes to write more about the history of America’s public lands because the public and media’s lack of knowledge plays into the hands of political manipulators and demagogues. I hope he does too. Enjoy your water.

ROB KJOS

Heron, Mont.

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