he public lands system seems to be collapsing on itself. The problems arise primarily from two historical trends, while the most promising solution arises from a third. The first historically rooted problem is the remote and centralized administration of vast amounts of western landscape. Nationally owned lands take up an astounding 83 percent of Nevada's total land area, more than 60 percent of Idaho's and Utah's, and more than 45 percent of the land in four other Western states.The Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and increasingly the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service have been given the primary responsibility to manage vast western lands.
Over the last three decades, this centralized system of land management has been encumbered with a surplus of good intentions. Because of the concentration of public lands in the West, the national environmental legal framework enacted in the 1960s and 1970s became far more noticeable in this region than in any other. The "major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment," to which the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act applies, are found across the country, but they are vastly more common in the West. And the regional impact of national environmental laws is not confined to the environmental act's jurisdiction. Public lands are governed by a whole array of their own federal statutes, and the impact of these also is most significantly felt in the West. The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, for example, BLM's operating framework, has no effect anywhere but in the West, because the bureau essentially manages no lands outside the region. The Forest Service does manage some forests elsewhere, but the fact that 85 percent of the country's national forests are located in the West means that the 1976 National Forest Management Act is part of the Law of the West. So, too, is the 1964 Wilderness Act.
The effects of all these laws in the West have been pervasive, complex and political. On the one hand, the nationalist vision of what is best for Western landscapes continues to be deeply, passionately and genuinely held by a range of people both within the West and beyond it. For millions of Americans, the public lands are among the noblest achievements of American democracy. They stand for farsighted wisdom and stewardship, and for the nation at its collective best. These public lands exemplify democracy in two important ways: They allow equal access for all Americans both to the public lands themselves and to the decision-making processes that determine how those lands are managed.
Taken by itself, each piece of the statutory framework of public land governance can be defended as good public policy, and the same can be said for every regulation adopted to implement those statutes. Each substantive and procedural element of this framework is eminently well-intended. Taken together, however, they steadily have driven the land management agencies toward what Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth calls "analysis paralysis." Defenders of the public lands system who have worked hard to secure the environmental and procedural safeguards that constitute this framework are reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the dysfunction that now afflicts these agencies. They continue to defend the system as national democracy at work.
But many Westerners feel as if they have been subject to more national democracy than they can tolerate. They encounter the public lands system as anything but an empowering, democratic experience. Their experience too often has been one of a frustrating, bureaucratic paternalism over the landscapes they inhabit.
There is a story almost totally unknown outside the West, but urgently discussed every day in the Western news media. It is the story of a steadily growing effort by Western environmentalists, ranchers, loggers, miners and recreation advocates to reach local agreements about how the public land or natural resources should be managed in their particular river drainage or ecosystem.
The list of such local collaborative efforts is growing too fast to be cataloged, but it is reaching historical proportions. A steadily growing number of Westerners from both sides of the political fence are coming to believe that they can do better by their communities, their economies and their ecosystems by working together outside the established, centralized governing framework than by continuing to rely on its cumbersome, uncertain, underfunded and increasingly irrelevant mechanisms. Working within the system had only taught them to be enemies.
The collaboration among these groups has begun to take on a political dimension almost in spite of itself. "All we want to do is make this thing work," most collaborators would say. "We're not interested in dismantling or even disturbing the old system." But the work of collaboration eventually reaches a critical mass that turns it into a politically transformative force. Increasingly, that force is manifesting itself in a lengthening list of proposals for experimenting with new models of public land governance.
A few years ago, for example, the Forest Options Group, nearly two dozen environmentalists, resource users, Forest Service officials and forest experts working to improve national forest management, proposed pilot projects to test new approaches to both the governing and budgetary structures of national forests. At about the same time, research and advocacy groups-such as the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, the Bolle Center for People and Forests, and the Northern Lights Institute-convened a symposium at the University of Montana's Lubrecht Forest to discuss problems in the management of national forests. The group suggested the creation of a Region 7 within the Forest Service-a nongeographic jurisdiction that would allow a few national forests to serve as testing grounds for collaborative governance structures and other mechanisms that would provide regulatory flexibility. In a similar vein, the Idaho Federal Lands Task Force recently recommended the development of pilot projects to test new approaches to federal land management. The proposed projects would seek to maintain and enhance environmental quality while creating opportunities for more effective public participation in resource management decisions. Congress showed willingness to move in this direction with the Valles Caldera National Preserve, as has the Bush administration with its charter forest proposal.
The challenge now is to combine the most promising features of these different approaches into a single legislative framework.The value of an experimental approach is that it doesn't attempt to change the entire public lands system, but recognizes problems and tests innovative systems in a few carefully chosen settings.To learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, a broad range of new approaches must be tested.The guiding principles of this framework of experimentation should be adaptability.
One recent innovation that has improved the operation of the public land system is the incorporation of adaptive management. Adaptive management acknowledges both that ecosystems are appropriate units for public land planning, and that they are too complex and unpredictable to be managed according to traditional planning models. Bowing to that unpredictability, adaptive management makes planning an ongoing activity fed by a constant stream of feedback from the ecosystem itself. As the results begin to accrue, the adaptive manager revisits the plan, adjusting it to the bottomless complexity of the ecosystem in question.
The same humility that informs adaptive management of public lands might now profitably be brought to bear on the governance of those lands. We do not know and cannot know what the single, comprehensive, ideal governing structure would be for public lands. The existing governance system has grown so complex in its effort to fulfill a vast variety of public policy objectives that no one can foresee all the consequences of any particular change.
This is why the idea of sweeping, systemwide reform is now so daunting. While we should begin to consider whether and how to attempt a comprehensive land law review, we should aggressively inform those deliberations with all the lessons that can be learned from a concerted initiative of adaptive governance in the form of deliberative experimentation.
The public lands system has been caught in the doldrums for a long time. Everyone involved needs a boost-policy-makers, senior officials, agency people on the ground, and all the concerned constituencies.
We need a sound approach to revitalizing a broken system. The most immediately promising step would be the launching of a period of deliberate experimentation with new models of public land governance. With the constructive involvement of all parties involved, such an adaptive governance initiative could provide a sound bipartisan approach to improving public land policy.
Daniel Kemmis is the director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at The University of Montana, and the author of This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West (Island Press, 2001).