The Uintah Trails Working Group celebrated National Public Lands Day by maintaining the Moonshine Trail that winds across the slickrock of Red Mountain. It was an opportunity to show our appreciation and support of Utah’s public lands. The term “public land” needs a little explanation, though, because there are several different “flavors” of public land, each with its own agency and varying degrees of protection and development.
The history of our public lands starts with wars; in the Napoleonic Wars around 1800, the “little general” Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the upstart United States. This area was not the boot-shaped state we now call Louisiana, but instead the entire Missouri River’s watershed, and much of Mississippi’s. 828,000 square miles, an unthinkably vast land. The General needed war cash, and he didn’t think he could hold onto Louisiana with the British Navy controlling the seas. Later, in 1846, the short-lived war with Mexico ended with that nation ceding the American Southwest to the U.S. That added another 762,000 square miles. One should probably note here that most of that land was already inhabited by Native American peoples that weren’t approving, or even aware, of the deal.
No American citizen had clear title to any of this land, so in the middle of the bloodiest war America every fought, Abe Lincoln passed the Homestead Act of 1862. People could get land essentially for free if they settled it and “proved it up”. Places like the bottomlands by Ashley Creek, with good soil and water, and a climate that favored agriculture, were settled first.
In 1872, Congress declared the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, and withdrew those lands from settlement. The park was to be “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”, unaffected by human industry (as far as possible). It wasn’t until 1916 that the National Park Service was created to manage the multiplying national parks - Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, and many other familiar names. The NPS was also handed all national monuments. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave the president of the U.S. unilateral power to withdraw from settlement lands deserving of protection, which Congress had not yet acted on. So the most preservationist of the public lands, national parks and monuments, were the first to appear. Dinosaur National Monument is our local example.
In the late 1800’s, cities, farms and ranches were concerned to perpetuate the water which snow-capped western mountains provided, as well as protect the forests. The Forest Reserve Act gave the president power to withdraw these highest, coldest, wettest places from settlement. The 1891 Forest Reserve Act gave the president power to withdraw these highest, coldest, wettest places from settlement. However, these national forests had a more complicated management situation. Some areas were used primarily to produce timber, but other areas were considered more important for the original watershed value. Hunting, fishing, mining, and grazing were also recognized uses. The Uintah Forest Reserve, created in 1897, was expanded in 1908 and renamed Ashley National Forest. By then, the U.S. Forest Service had already been created to manage them.
That left the lowest, driest, least appealing lands (to a settler, anyway). The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 allowed the government to limit how much livestock could be stocked on these and other public lands, and which ranchers had that right. It’s no coincidence that this was the time of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest, and westerners could see that they had overstocked the public land and could lose their soil, too. But it wasn’t until 1976 that the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) removed these lands from settlement. This newest agency, the Bureau of Land Management, has the same conflicted mandate as the U.S. Forest Service. It is perhaps even more difficult, since the BLM controls mineral development on all the federal lands, as well as recreation, grazing, and watersheds. The Book Cliffs are local BLM-managed lands.
Because of the built-in conflicting uses of public lands, there is a never-ending national conversation about them, since they belong to all citizens of this nation. I grew up in Kansas, which is in the sad position of having the smallest percentage of public land of any state in the nation, less than 1 percent. If you were lucky enough to own some country acres, or if you had friends that allowed you access, you could hike, hunt, play (which is what all forms of recreation are, as far as I can see). Otherwise, you paid a fee to enter private land. The public lands we enjoy in the West are the best part of our lifestyle. That’s why one week after high school graduation, in June of 1973, I took off for the Rocky Mountains, and never looked back.