Protecting Our Access to Public Lands
June 2014 by Chris RalphWhen I was a boy, my grandfather used to take me camping regularly. I remember often seeing signs as we entered into various National Forests saying, “Land of Many Uses,” and in those days that statement was correct. Both National Forest and BLM land were used for the good of our nation. Forests were managed and trees harvested, livestock was grazed in many places, and mining operations were conducted to provide jobs and wealth for our nation.
Campgrounds were constructed, streams were blocked and the lakes that formed where filled with fish, and even cabins were built on public lands for public enjoyment. It all seemed right to me, as a young man, that these things should happen because in the grand scheme of things, they were for the benefit of everyone. This was the management style of your public lands 50, 60 and 75 years ago. The “land of many uses” motto was coined by the head of the Forest Service from the 1950s, but sadly, things have changed drastically since then.
When was the last time you saw a new campground built in a National Forest? I’ve seen older ones removed, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a new one built. I rarely see livestock grazing in National Forests anymore, not because it’s illegal, but because fees have been raised so high and the number of permits is so limited. We once provided thousands of jobs to lumber industry workers through harvesting, and there were hundreds of lumber mills across the richly forested state of California. Those days are gone, and I’m told there are three left still in operation. California once had many hundreds of gold mines employing thousands. There are only a handful of mines left now.
The “many uses” are now acceptable only if you are planning to take pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and stay out of any areas deemed “sensitive.” The goal of public land management is preserving public lands against the pressures of development and against the impacts and damage caused by the public. Current land managers oversee the public lands not to grow our nation and provide jobs and recreation, but to protect “aesthetic and spiritual values, recreational opportunities, fresh drinking water, clean air” and to protect the ever-growing list of endangered species.
When the National Forest program was started, it was never the intent to preserve the entire forest in an unaltered state, but to manage its development. It was not the goal to fight all development and protect it from the public, but to guide and manage growth for the good of all. Current management is trying to limit development even on private property within a 10-mile radius. My home is within a half mile of National Forest land. Are my neighbors and I damaging the values of the National Forest simply by existing there? Is the fact that my home can be seen from National Forest land degrading to the National Forest?
Forest Service reports state plainly their view: “The presence of increased housing development near National
Forest System lands can reduce open space and alter aesthetic qualities that contribute to recreation experiences.” In the same breath they also say: “Increased public access and activities on public lands could also create heightened concerns and higher costs for management of cultural resources.” They also note their real view of US citizens: “Increased human populations have been associated with an increase in crime on public lands, such as vandalism, drug activity, assaults, and illegal garbage dumping.” It seems outrageous that National Forest officials are trying to slow development on private lands outside the forest boundaries, but it’s happening.
A while back, I was discussing these concepts with my friend Steve Herschbach, who also writes for the Mining Journal, and he had a very insightful comment. He said it was like the BLM had begun to manage its land like the Forest Service used to, that the Forest Service had begun to manage its land like the National Parks used to, and the National Parks were turning into closed preserves owned by the government, where the public was not welcome except in tiny, well-controlled areas. It is not an exact description of what is going on, but it does paint a good picture of the creeping change in values when our public lands are no longer being managed to the benefit of the citizens but instead taken away from them. Our nation has suffered for it.
The new view of public lands by many officials is that all of it should be considered a preserve. Wilderness is land where all development is prohibited. The current philosophy of federal land managers is that all public lands should be treated like wilderness with only very limited, controlled use by the public. In fact, the Chief of the Forest Service has cited “unmanaged recreation” as one of the top four threats to the nation’s forests. No longer is the public freely invited to experience the beauty of our public lands; instead, use of federal land by citizens is seen as a threat to the forest.
To keep the public off of public lands and control and limit access, both the Forest Service and BLM have moved in recent years to close a large number of roads. There has been a considerable public outcry over these ongoing actions. At a recent public hearing in Elko, Nevada, a Forest Service official who oversees 34 million acres of National Forest land in five Western states defended the agency’s actions in closing roads as unpopular but necessary because of what they see as a rapid increase of off-road vehicle travel. Regional Forester Harv Forsgren told the crowd that motor vehicle use has damaged natural and cultural resources. Forsgren said he understands that the restrictions “may change the way people experience their National Forests.”
My response is that these “natural and cultural resources” are vague and never actually described. It’s just their excuse. But, I do agree that of course the road closures will “change the way people experience their National Forests.” The change is that people are being locked out of their public lands.
A number of members of congress have been highly critical of the Forest Service actions, including Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Mark Amodei, R-Nevada. (Amodei happens to be my congressional representative.) Amodei has labeled Forest Service road closure policies as excessive regulation of public lands across the West. Bishop has stated that “the last four to five decades have witnessed a paradigm shift toward a hands-off policy or preservation. We need our land managers working with us to keep the public’s lands open for the use and enjoyment of all.” I think most ICMJ readers would agree with that statement wholeheartedly.
The closing of roads and limiting of access are not new; it has been going on for many years, just on a much smaller scale. The elimination of vehicles, together with eliminating activities like logging and mining, are the keys to cutting back on the number of people in the forest. In 2001, the Forest Service came out with a specific Roadless Rule that established prohibitions on road construction, road repair and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of National Forest System lands. This effectively prohibited mining as well since it is practically impossible to have a commercial mining operation without road access. The intent of the Roadless Rule is to simply prohibit any future use and development in designated roadless areas.
The amount of specially designated lands where use and development are prohibited is growing at a frightening rate. Wilderness lands, Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE) areas, wild and scenic and other protected categories eliminate mineral access and the ability to stake claims. The Wilderness Act was passed 50 years ago in 1964 with good intentions. Currently, 109 million acres—or about 5% of the entire US, and about a fifth of all federal land—is designated as wilderness. But the trick of the law is that protectionist bureaucrats can designate lands as wilderness “study areas” and these receive the same protection as designated wilderness. There is no time limit for the “study” of these areas, so now an additional 12 million acres are designated and protected as “study areas” and these cannot be touched either.
Miles of gold-bearing rivers have been designated “Wild and Scenic” and are off limits to mining claims. If you think that rivers designated as Wild and Scenic are limited to those that are wild and undeveloped, think again—some have paved roads right through them. It’s just another way Washington land bureaucrats can post a “Keep Out” sign. In many parts of the country, politicians appease the extreme environmentalist crowd by turning federal lands into federal parks, which also prohibits public use of public land. The total area protected by National Park designation is approximately 51.9 million acres. Adding up all the specially designated lands and parks, more than a third of all federal land in the United States is specially designated as off limits as a preserve (and this does not include military bases, federal prisons and other lands).
As prospectors, we cannot just roll over and continue to ignore the shift in public land management from multiple use to national preserve. We must fight to protect our access and ability to use public lands the way we once did. Miners do not want to destroy the land—we want to use it responsibly, but we are not in favor of making all federal lands into a wilderness preserve. Public Lands for the People (PLP) is one of the organizations fighting toward this goal, and there are a number of other organizations. I urge you to get involved and let your voice be heard.
There are many extremist environmental organizations pushing to take away access to public land and preserve everything the government currently controls as a wilderness preserve. We need to push back and speak out for our rights to use public land. We need to fight back when roads to mines that are older than the Forest Service itself are blocked off or destroyed to keep the public out.
The BLM and Forest Service have recently armed themselves like an army against our citizens who want to use public lands. This was made clear last year in the Chicken Mining district of Alaska and more recently in Southern Nevada against ranchers. We need to fight this in the courts and at the ballot box, and I urge you to do your part and not look to someone else to take care of it for you.
US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. “National Forests On The Edge,” www.fs.fed.us/openspace/fote/GTR728.pdf (August 2007).
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