New Paths Toward the Loss of Our Public Lands

“We have a country and a world that is actually run by thieves. That’s the problem.”

–Matt Stoller, July 19, 2008, Netroots Nation Conference, Austin, Texas

There is no physical possession of greater value that Americans can give their descendants than the public domain – national forests, national parks, wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands that together make up a third of the nation. And it’s all yours ”if“, as Ben Franklin once said regarding the Republic itself, “you can hold onto it”. In fact, we are losing our hold, and quickly at that. We’re not paying attention, and key players in the “private sector”, that euphemism for what, frankly, alludes to corporations and an inconspicuous wealthy minority, are aiming to become the new landlords.



“(T)he western cattle industry has been riding the backs of taxpayers for nearly seventy years.”

–T.H. Watkins, 2002. An Evil In The Season: The Cattleman’s Welfare System Begins

Much of our land has for decades been under the iron grip of a small but powerful segment of the livestock industry – holders of grazing permits (“permittees”) who, as a group, tend to dislike the very “big government” of by and for The People – read American taxpayer – that has made them rich and is keeping them that way. Their livestock dominates on tens of millions of acres of federal land, replacing entire landscapes of America’s wild creatures. When state and county lands are added to the federal count, livestock grazes some 300 million acres of the American West, an area three times larger than California. Even in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (Yellowstone Park and the mostly public land surrounding it), all of the great hoofed natives there — mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, moose, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and bison  –  all taken together are outnumbered 2:1 by domestic livestock. And that’s supposedly our premier wilderness. (To see areas in the Yellowstone Ecosystem where permittees graze livestock, look here. Were it not for livestock grazing, the vast expanse of the people’s domain in the western U.S. could be a North American Serengeti with wild herds extending beyond the horizons in all directions.

And here’s the kicker: We subsidize these permittees. To graze on private land, the average cost in 17 western states in 2007 was $14.80 per AUM (An AUM – animal unit per month — is a cow and calf or five sheep grazed per month). But permittees on public land pay the U.S. just $1.35. For every AUM on our public land, taxpayers subsidize livestock operators, on average, $13.45 that, in sum, amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Although confusing for a society trained to the myth of ruggedly independent, straight talkin’ western characters, permittees are among America’s preeminent “welfare queens — prime suckings at the Eagle’s teats.

It gets a worse. Although permittees lease nothing more than grazing rights, and We The Owners have a perfect right to be there to hike or to camp or simply to hang out, many permittees have settled comfortably into the notion that the land is theirs. Leases have become perceived as permanent features, so that after several generations, ranches are bought and sold as if leased public domain is as much a permanent part of the deal as the permittee’s own land. It is not uncommon for citizens to be run off of their public land by permittees, sometimes at gunpoint or with threat of violence.

To understand how such an idiotic situation came to be, one has to look back to 1934 when the BLM, then known as the Grazing Service, placed some 80 million acres into “grazing districts” to be overseen by district advisory boards made up of permittees themselves. One hesitates to resort to the overused metaphor of the fox in the henhouse, but there’s nothing available quite as appropriate.



“Virtually everything President Bush is doing to America is, at some level, related to the privatization of our commons.” –

Scott Silver, Wild Wilderness, 2003

It has been 27 years since James Beckwith, publishing through the right wing Cato Institute, laid out, with regard to public parks, plans for “… ascending radicalism from reform through volunteerism and privatization of services to the outright abolition of public ownership and the transfer of parks to private parties”. Since then, schemes to privatize the larger array of public lands have been advancing under the deceptively wordsmithed banner of “free-market environmentalism”, backed by a network of corporations and conservative think tanks. In a nutshell, the idea is to employ volunteerism and “the contracting out of support services to private firms operating for profit” as a path to transferring ownership of the public’s land to the private sector. “Existing public parks”, Beckwith wrote, “could either be given away or sold to the highest bidder”. The idea was, and remains, to turn citizens from owners into “customers” obliged to pay what the new owners would demand in a “free market”.

In ensuing years, the federal government has been promoting volunteerism (, http://www.takepride.gov while outsourcing jobs. In 2003, then Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced an intention ultimately to outsource 72% of the Park Service’s positions. In 2006, more than 150,000 volunteers worked more than 5 million hours in the U.S. Park Service’s “Volunteers in the Parks” Program, this essentially replacing 2451 full time positions. Reliance on volunteerism is increasing, with President Bush pushing budgets that increase dependence on volunteers by the Park Service while simultaneously fostering private investment. As of 2007, the plan has been to gain 11,000 volunteers, and with the private sector investing a billion dollars in the park system, by 2016. Contracting with the private sector is also under way in the U.S. Forest Service, BLM , and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The privatization of America’s public domain through volunteerism and outsourcing is an ongoing, long-range project, threading its way subtly and stepwise like a metastasizing cancer through federal budgets, political-bureaucratic-industrial connections, and public relations campaigns. Citizens have no idea what they are losing, and corporate media ownerships with diverse investment interests, just itching for a slice of the public domain pie, have little incentive to tell them.



“The work of ORRG [Outdoor Resources Review Group] will be funded by three foundations long associated with conservation and recreation issues, according to Henry Diamond: foundations linked to the Mellon, Packard and Rockefeller families.”

As federal land management agencies have their funds whittled down piecemeal (the case throughout this unending “Reagan Revolution”) in the name of “trimming the budget”, they are forced to look to the private sector for “public-private partnerships” that allow corporations a very big foot in the door. Add to that the Bush Administration’s aggressive program of outsourcing federal jobs, and you have a recipe for theft on a scale that’s as mind boggling as it is real.

Tops among commercial initiatives positioning to exploit changing conditions is industrial recreation. Under the umbrella of the American Recreation Coalition (ARC) there is encompassed an immense array of big business interests including Disney, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, all manner of sporting goods manufacturers, petroleum interests, outfitters, RV/ORV/snowmobile/jetski interests whether manufacturer or advocacy group, etc., many of them “fun” in the most commercialized, motorized, slam-bang sense destructive to the natural world, and all couched in the best smiley faces the advertising and PR industries can concoct.



“What is your home place worth? Your lover’s hair? A stream? A species? Wolves in Yellowstone? Carefully imagine each beloved person, place, animal or thing redescribed in economic language. Then apply cost-benefit analysis. What results is a feeling of sickness of being forced to use a language that ignores what matters in your heart.”

– Jack Turner, 1996, Economic Nature, The Abstract Wild

The rapid ascendancy of the right to its current dominance began in the sixties through a network of well financed conservative think tanks and foundations that ultimately found their voice in Ronald Reagan, who declared that Government Of, By and For The People was the source of the Nation’s ills. Privatization then began a massive surge forward aided by a corporate owned media only too willing to perpetuate the silly view that a democratic socialism that would allow for such as social security and citizen-owned public domain was an extension of totalitarian communism. The bitter irony of this is that enough taxpayer money funds federal land management agencies, even as private interests profit, that the outcome is socialism for corporations and the very wealthy.

Today, many well-financed advocacy groups push in some way the privatization-deregulation-“free-market” ideology as it relates to environment and public domain. Notable among them is the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), whose founder John Baden is a past member of the National Petroleum Council and a member of the anti-government, anti-union Mont Pelerin Society. FREE’s close neighbor in Bozeman, Montana is the Property & Environment Research Center (PERC), dedicated to “improving environmental quality through markets” and directed by one Terry Anderson.

Anyone wanting a snapshot of the endgame, as planned, would do well to consider a 1999 proposal by Terry Anderson, “How and Why to Privatize Public Lands”, also published by Cato ). In it Anderson, whose ideal is land “allocated to highest-valued use” (i.e., “value” in cash), and who views public ownership of the land as “a failure of socialism”, formulated a plan to allocate to citizens “shares” of public domain, which shares could be sold on the open market. When strapped for money, citizens would naturally be cashing in their shares, and the real players of the “private sector” would be in waiting to pick them up. According to Anderson’s vision, a transfer to private interests would take 20-40 years. However fanciful and unworkable that may seem at first glance, it gives insight into both goal and thinking process, and it is of more than passing interest that Anderson is advisor to President George W. Bush on issues relating to what, for the time being, is public domain belonging to We The People.

Bill Willers is emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, founder of Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN) and editor of “Learning to Listen to the Land” and “Unmanaged Landscapes“, both from Island Press.


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