America’s Public Lands: A Bipartisan Political Success Story

In an era marked by bitter partisanship, UC Hastings law professor emeritus John Leshy set out to profile the exact opposite. Leshy says our public lands — national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, among others — are one of the nation’s greatest bipartisan achievements. He explores the policy decisions that produced this outcome in his new book, Our Common Ground: A History of American Public Landspublished by Yale University Press.

What prompted you to write this book?

I have long found it remarkable, in a country that celebrates private property and tends to distrust government, that the federal government owns and manages almost 30% of the country’s land. My book explains how it happened. Today, virtually every poll shows that people of all political stripes strongly support the protection of these publicly owned lands. This is a political achievement — the political system works as it should.

How did the federal government come to obtain and retain title to such a high percentage of land?

The heart of the story begins around 1890. It was then that the United States government began a systematic effort to keep the land it had previously acquired in public ownership for all to enjoy. The movement to do this had several roots. It was feared that a land takeover by large private interests would exclude the general public, which is still a concern in some places today. Protecting watersheds and water supplies also motivated people. Land protection in the Sierras, for example, was triggered by local petitions to the government. This was not a federal land grab that happened over local opposition: these decisions were supported from the bottom up.

Why is federal ownership and management of these lands still a good idea today?

It’s a good idea because most Americans support protecting the open spaces, wildlife habitat, and cultural and historical resources that these lands contain. Where did people go after the pandemic? They were tired of being locked up and went to national parks and other public lands. In August alone last year, Yellowstone welcomed 1 million visitors for the first time in its history.

My book is not about how indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their lands, a process that began with Christopher Columbus and ended for the most part well before 1890. That’s a different story and covered in many books. But my book touches on an important development in modern times, namely how Indigenous nations are demanding more influence over how the United States manages the public lands with which it has ancestral ties. That makes President Biden’s appointment of Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American cabinet member in American history, particularly significant. The influence of Indigenous peoples is also felt because federal land managers learn from their traditional knowledge about how best to manage the land, including the use of tools like fire.

You talk about the enduring bipartisan support for the preservation of public lands. What explains this?

People of all political stripes appreciate the outdoors and open spaces. They have life-changing experiences on public lands and generally want to protect them for future generations to enjoy. There have been hiccups, like when President Trump removed protections from two large areas of public land in southern Utah. But when President Biden reinstated the protections, a majority of commissioners in a directly affected local county backed his action, which speaks volumes about public opinion there.

With climate change and biodiversity loss accelerating, what would you like to see in the future, in terms of stewardship and other actions, to continue to support and strengthen our public lands?

You have put your finger on the two biggest challenges facing public lands and humanity. To deal with it, people must collectively decide to overrule the decisions of narrower interests. America’s public lands provide a shining example of our political system doing just that. Public lands also provide a stark demonstration of what we face if we don’t act: glaciers in Glacier National Park, for example, are set to disappear by 2030.

Public lands can play an important role in moving away from fossil fuels. Just as the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone, the Carbon Age will not end because we ran out of oil and gas. This transition is already underway and interest in using public lands for renewable energy sites is growing dramatically. In 2021, the Trump administration’s sale of oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge brought in just $14 million in deals. Earlier this year, a sale by the Department of the Interior of wind power leases off Long Island attracted more than $4 billion in bids. That says a lot about the direction we are heading. Public lands also provide many great examples of how we can protect and restore healthy habitat to promote biodiversity.

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