We Have a Land Management Problem

Restoring scientific management principles while promoting collaboration and balanced use

By Dale Bosworth, David A. Mihalic and Ryan Zinke

While reasonable people might disagree on any number of issues, we agree that Theodore Roosevelt was right. Our public lands belong to all Americans and are best managed under federal protection. Roosevelt defied convention and courageously acted to save America’s diminishing natural resources, bringing 230 million acres of public land under increased protection as national forests, refuges, parks, and monuments.

He and Gifford Pinchot, whom Roosevelt appointed first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, are credited with establishing the modern “conservation ethic” by using scientific management principles that have become the bedrock of public land management policy. Indeed, their vision that conservation means promoting resource management along with strict protection is well reflected in our diverse system of national parks, forests, wilderness, and public lands.

Today, Roosevelt’s conservation ethic is in jeopardy as special interests, endless litigation, and political gridlock threaten proven best practices, balanced use, and common sense while tying the hands of our resource professionals. The result is catastrophic wildland fires, destruction of critical habitat, management decisions made by lawyers, and the loss of millions of dollars in local revenue that funds schools, infrastructure, and preservation.

What is needed to restore the conservation ethic is better management by resource professionals, greater collaboration with citizens, and increased investment in our public lands. But “better” management does not mean the transfer or the sale of federal lands. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is an effective management tool to identify risks, mitigate potential impacts, and to prevent inappropriate use. But Congress never intended NEPA to be a tool to stop sound resource management. Today, the facts supporting the need for better management are clear. In just 20 years, the U.S. Forest Service has gone from spending 15 percent of its budget on fighting fires to over 50 percent. Last year, over $2 billion was spent fighting fire. The season is longer, fires burn hotter, and the devastation to watershed and wildlife is undeniable.

The fact is, we do not have a fire problem; we have a land management problem. We need to restore scientific management principles, promote collaboration and balanced use, and allow professional land managers to manage.

Montana is proud that we lead the nation in collaborative land management efforts, but unfortunately we also lead in litigating their results. Collaboration is not easy. It takes time, resources, and commitment by all stakeholders to come together and reach consensus. Such efforts should be rewarded. But too often, the collective decisions are stopped by punitive litigation from objectors who believe their own agenda is more important.

The result is that all management progress stops and the collective will of stakeholders is subverted. The outcome is that good solutions are tossed out and stakeholders are told to start over. In the meantime, opportunities are lost and best practices disrupted due to the tyranny of a few. Too often, the next step is to lose heart or become frustrated and to fix the blame, instead of fixing the problem.

Meanwhile, the USFS spends the lion’s share of their budget fighting fires and defending litigation. Foresters are faced with mountains of paperwork rather than being in the field. Parks face crowding, resource damage, and decaying facilities. Refuges remain short-staffed, and wildlife suffers while public lands lose native plants and suffer unmanaged use. Common sense would say we need more resource professionals and scientists on the land and greater collaboration with citizens to promote a healthier public landscape.

Montana is blessed to have world-renowned national parks among our national and state forests and national wildlife refuges. The success of Glacier and Yellowstone may also be a threat to their sustainability unless we prepare now for the future. With visitors at record levels we already see those who believe people are the problem and the solution is to keep people out. It is time we demonstrate the courage of Teddy Roosevelt, invest in our parks and forests, and rethink the use of our adjacent public lands to relieve some of the burden. We believe this will take collaboration and both public and private resources to improve access, upgrade recreation amenities, protect habitat, and better manage public use and access.

We believe all Montanans cherish our public lands. We must act now – together – to restore a true conservation ethic. Roosevelt had it right when he stated “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do (their) part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.” We agree.

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