Martin Nie. The Governance of Western Public Lands: Mapping Its Present and Future. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008. xii + 368 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-1558-2.
Reviewed by Margaret A. Bickers (Kansas State University)
Published on H-Water (May, 2009)
Commissioned by Justin M. Scott-Coe
Legislation, Logjams, and the "Lords of Yesterday"
Anyone living in, working in, or studying the history and government of the western half of the United States will be familiar with at least some of the controversies generated by arguments over the governance of public lands. Debates over the exact meaning of "multi-use," "sustainable yield," "habitat protection," and other matters spill into politics, the media, and popular culture. Martin Nie argues that the heart of the matter lies in how public lands are governed--the laws, regulations, plans, litigations, and scientific studies that determine how federally owned land can be sued, for what purposes, and by whom. Using case studies, interviews, and a leavening of humor, Nie argues that a mixture of legislative delegation and "drivers" that include scarcity; distrust; "intermixed ownership" of federal, state, tribal, and private land; budgets; public land law; political strategies; and other ingredients produce "wicked problems"--conflicts that cannot be resolved easily and forever with one solution. This valuable book outlines the background of some of the conflicts, as well as the processes used to try and solve them, and shows how complicated the problems of governing public lands can be. Nie concludes with ideas for trying to break the logjam of conflict and inefficiency to achieve a new, or at least greatly improved, public lands and resources policy for the West.
The first two chapters describe the larger picture of land governance and conflicts. Chapter 1 focuses on the "why" of the conflicts and examines some of the multiple causes, intensifiers, and parts of modern public land conflict. The second chapter outlines the major laws governing federal lands and the resources found on and under them, then examines congressional debate and delegation of rulemaking. Nie shows how the U.S. Congress has shifted responsibility to the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other executive-branch agencies and departments. Chapter 3 describes the results of such delegation by examining how the U.S. Forest Service deals with the conflicts over proposed creation, expansion, or reduction of roadless areas within public lands. Here, the reader finds an example of how the drivers, laws, congressional (in)activity, and agency rulemaking process work along with seemingly conflicting local and national interests and values to complicate the question of how best to preserve resources and habitat.
The saga of logging in the Tongass National Forest forms the core of chapters 4 and 5. This temperate rainforest in southeastern Alaska illustrates the problem on a grand scale, as private logging companies, native American tribal corporations, environmental protection groups, the state of Alaska, and the international timber and wood pulp markets all play roles in the ongoing studies, litigations, protests, and proposals for the region. The author also points out the place of national versus local conservation groups, and discusses the tensions such "outsiders" can add to what local residents consider very local matters. Chapter 6 proposes ways to work through, overhaul, and possibly find solutions for the problems surrounding public lands.
Nie draws on public policy, conflict analysis, history, and extensive interviews for his work. He freely acknowledges the influence of Charles Wilkinson's book Crossing the Next Meridian (1992), including Wilkinson's discussion of the "lords of yesterday." These are the laws and philosophies of resource use from the nineteenth century that linger on and shape modern situations. The author also draws on Paul Hirt's history of the Forest Service, A Conspiracy of Optimism (1994). Nie's obvious knowledge of the field shows in his ability to make clear the confusing layers of federal law. He also avoids labeling heroes and villains in the tale of the Tongass, instead reminding readers that the actors often sincerely believe that they have the best interests of the forest and the people at heart, based on best current knowledge. If there is a "bad guy" in the work, it appears to be a succession of congressmen and women who chose the politically safe over the nationally necessary. As Nie suggests, stepping back from the forests to survey the broader environment of ideas and laws may be the best first stage in resolving the seemingly insoluble problem of governing western lands and resources.
Although the book lacks a bibliography, the notes are detailed and quite helpful, especially for readers who might not be familiar with U.S. laws and policies and who wish to learn more. This reviewer enjoyed the landscape pictures in the photo section, but would prefer to have had at least one or two maps of the areas Nie describes. Although the work focuses on forest lands, the author's points hold equally true for debates over rangeland, public waters, plant and animal conservation, and other resource questions. The author's sense of humor and skill as a writer help make this valuable update to older works and study of current policy conflicts and their possible solutions an enjoyable and readable book.
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Margaret A. Bickers. Review of Nie, Martin, The Governance of Western Public Lands: Mapping Its Present and Future.
H-Water, H-Net Reviews.
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