A Brief History of Public Lands

Recently, the topic of public lands seems inescapable. But what are public lands exactly? Reductively speaking, public lands are lands used by the public but are owned and managed by the government. Examples are national parks, national forests, state parks, conservation areas, and various other designations. In New York, there are a multitude of federal public lands. The Appalachian Trail, Ellis Island, Erie Canalway, Fire Island, Niagara Falls, and the Statue of Liberty are just a few of the numerous public lands in New York. The federal government owns a massive amount of land, 640 million acres.  This land, usually of environmental or historical importance, great beauty, or economic value, is extremely valuable to the United States and its citizens. To fully understand public lands, its important to know how these lands were acquired and managed by the United States government. 

In the period referred to as “Westward Expansion” the United States acquired a lot of land through various means from France, Mexico, and Native American tribes. The Louisiana Purchase is possibly the most famous accrual of land during this period. To encourage settlement in the western areas of the U.S., the government enacted the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted settlers with this newly acquired land if they promised to settle and manage the land. It is important to note that this period of American history is also marked by the violent removal and forceful acquisition of land from the Native Americans by our government. In 1877, the government owned 1.8 billion acres of land. This land is still owned by the government and makes up all our current public lands.

By the 20th century, environmentalists grew concerned over the degradation of land due to overgrazing, barbed wire fencing which divided open ranges, dam building, and large-scale timbering and industrial mining. This concern from advocates such as  Margaret Murie, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Marjory Douglas, Teddy Roosevelt resulted in the passing of many influential acts such as the creation of the National Forest System, Antiquities Act of 1906 (allowed for the creation of National Monuments), and the beginning of the National Park System. 

The 1960-70s are famous for being decades of environmental activism. As a result, many laws were passed to ensure the protection of our lands. Some of the most prominent are The Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960, The Clean Air Act of 1963, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973

Today these lands are managed by four agencies. Three of these agencies are in the U.S. Department of Interior: the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Services. The other managerial authority is in the U.S. Department of Agriculture: the U.S. Forest Service. Congress has the ultimate authority to govern federal public lands, bestowed to them by the Article V, Section 3, Clause 2 of the Property Clause of the Constitution. As a result, you may feel removed from this process, but you are at the center. Your vote determines who sits in Congress. If you are concerned about the mismanagement of your beloved public lands, vote for people that care about stopping the degradation of the environment and protecting our public lands. Unfortunately, the Ashley Schiff preserve has not been granted legal protection. This means our lovely preserve is at danger of one day not being the beautiful sanctuary it is today. If you are interested in learning more or getting involved with the preserve, you’re in the right place! Check out these links to get involved, contact us, and visit the preserve! 

I, Lara Guenzler, am a junior majoring in English and minoring in Political Science. Growing up in Montana, hiking in the gorgeous Glacier National Park, and visiting one of the largest protected wilderness, the Bob Marshal Wilderness gave me a special love for public lands and the outdoors. I believe it is essential to protect these lands because of their environmental importance, but also because of the wonderful recreation they provide. These lands are ripe with physical resources making them a target for commercial ventures, which makes their protection all the more important.


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