National forests and Bureau of Land Management lands belong to all of us. They do not and should not belong to the states in which they exist. These federal lands are much too important to be managed by state agencies guided by politicians. With federal ownership, each of us has a potential say in how these great landscapes are managed, no matter their location.
Montanans can influence how the Tongass National Forest (Alaska) is managed. Alaskans, or citizens of any state, have a right to help determine how the Flathead National Forest is managed. That is as it should be. These lands have multiple benefits for the entire country: the production of clean water, wilderness, diversity of natural habitats for wildlife, a variety of outdoor recreation pursuits, selective harvesting of second-growth timber, and mining at appropriate sites.
Transferring federal lands to the states could bring back the disgraceful corporate exploitation that occurred throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. Forests were plundered for timber, minerals, land speculation, and other utilitarian interests, without regard to the long-term interests of the general public. This land abuse motivated Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot to successfully fight for the establishment of forest reserves, national forests, and the U.S. Forest Service. In his first annual address to Congress (1901), Republican President Theodore Roosevelt said: “The forest reserves should be set apart forever for the use and benefit of our people as a whole and not sacrificed to the shortsighted greed of a few.”
It is true that there have been plenty of problems in the management of federal lands — for example the “timber mining” that occurred in the Bitterroot National Forest in the 1950s and 1960s (refer to the Bolle Report (1970), “A University View of the Forest Service,” Senate Doc. 91-115). Currently, the Forest Service and BLM are underfunded in critical programs. As a result, law violators go unprosecuted. Impacts of proposed timber sales, roads, mines, and motorized use are inadequately evaluated. Incomplete evaluation results in successful litigation by organizations, demonstrating that the agencies are not doing a satisfactory job in those cases.
Existing problems could be resolved by a Congress interested in furthering natural resource conservation. Federal management of public lands would greatly improve if agencies were properly funded and enabled to consistently follow sound ecological principles, rather than being pressured to adopt political goals. There is no way that state legislatures would improve the funding for managing these lands (note the failure to properly fund the state park system!). This would create an obvious rationalization for selling valuable parcels.
Nationally, many Republicans supported progressive conservation legislation through the 1960s. Now, Republicans substitute pretense for conservation. They advocate programs that will return the highest short-term profit from the land, with no regard to the future. Even without selling lands after transfer to the states, contracts would transform our forests into tree farms and subject grazing lands to worse abuse than some now suffer. Transferring federal lands to the states would be a mistake that future generations would rue.
McClelland is a resident of West Glacier.