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Original Issue


If some western politicians—and supporting lobbyists—have their way and carry through on their 'dominant use' policy, a vast public domain will be opened up for private use and profit

June 20, 1970

The President
The White House
Washington, D.C.
Dear Mr. President:
We submit with pride the report of the Public Land Law Review Commission with our recommendations for policy guidelines for the retention and management or disposition of Federal lands that equal one-third of the area of our Nation.

Although we represent diverse views and backgrounds, we were able to adjust our ideas, objectively consider the problems and achieve this general agreement. In a few instances, individual members have set forth their separate views. Because this is a consensus report, however, the absence of a member's separate views does not necessarily indicate that there is unanimity on the details.

The Commission's recommendations will support early implementation through Executive and legislative action to assure equitable treatment of our citizens and make the public land laws of the United States and their administration simpler, more effective, and, in accordance with the criterion of the policy objective set forth in the Commission's Organic Act, truly for the maximum benefit for the general public.

This apparently innocuous letter, signed by Representative Wayne Aspinall of Colorado and 18 members of his commission, led off a 342-page report that was rive years in the making and cost $7 million.

The public land mentioned is not merely a few tracts of forest and plain. It is 724 million acres—724 million acres of some of the purest, most beautiful and least-ransacked land on earth. This land is scattered throughout the country, but the largest concentrations are found, naturally, in the western states—one of the last relatively safe reservoirs of fresh air, clean water and nonmanhandled ecology. Three million big-game animals depend on this wild country, and 17,500 miles of fishing streams flow through it. Amazingly, most of the public has been unaware of this inheritance, and nobody has been doing much shouting about it. But the whispers have been loud enough to hear.

The Public Land Law Review Commission was created as part of a bargain with Representative Aspinall, chairman of the Interior Committee and a man who could never be mistaken for a friend of conservation, to let the Wilderness Bill go through. Some bargain. Aspinall's commission has—on the basis of little-publicized hearings and highly secretive deliberations about "the final disposition of public lands"—recommended accelerated exploitation and disposal of the lands. Before most of the heirs have even learned about the inheritance the will is being rewritten.

All six Senators attached to the commission came from development-hungry western states. Three of six House appointees and three of six lay members appointed by Lyndon Johnson also represented the West. The appointment of Aspinall as chairman was a little like letting a rabbit decide the disposition of a lettuce field.

Public ignorance about most of the public lands has remained carefully preserved. Everybody knows about our national parks, and Americans are just beginning to recognize the recreational and wilderness resource constituted by our national forests, but the national parks and forests comprise only 210 million acres of public land. Another 48.5 million acres are held by such scarcely ecology-minded agencies as the Bureau of Reclamation, the Corps of Engineers and the armed forces.

The remainder of this vast acreage that might be available or suitable for recreation is controlled by a nearly anonymous agency called the Bureau of Land Management. Historically, the bureau has permitted mining, lumber and stock interests to make incursions into the public lands almost at will. Short-range economic pressure has often prevented even the rudimentary conservation of sustained yield. Large acreage has been sold off cheaply to private buyers—in periodic auctions to neighboring ranchers, for example.

Beauty and the biosphere have seemed to hold low priorities at the Bureau of Land Management. Routinely denied access to their own land, recreationists have been shortchanged on information as to the location—and even the existence—of these reserves. Yet the BLM has never been as ecologically ignorant as Reclamation or the Corps of Engineers, and the low public visibility of the public domain has somewhat shielded it from public misuse. BLM has simply been tied by parochial pressure, low manpower and a crazy quilt of laws—at least 5,000 of them.

Thus recreational, wildlife, wilderness and conservation groups find their quiet apprehension justified: Aspinall's commission, by recommending increased industrial exploitation, presents Congress and the country with something of a fait accompli. The well-printed report and the accompanying 10-foot-high stack of 40 contracted studies give the recommendations a certain stamp of monumentality. The average Congressman—let alone the average citizen—may boggle at the dense supporting prose and defer to the commission's hard work and presumed expertise. Any resulting legislation will very likely be shaped by Congressional Interior committees controlled by the same men and interests dominating the commission.

It is not crying "wolf!" any sooner or louder than necessary to mention the most alarming possible outcome of this report. "Undisposed" BLM domain has often been described by commission members as if it were eliminable waste. The commission is on record as not "favoring any 'wholesale retention' " of lands. In fact, provisions for disposing of much more land have been recommended.

Certain western state and local governments have demanded land for industrial and commercial expansion. They cry for "a broader tax base," although they already have more taxable land than do some small eastern states.

The report recommends transfer even of national forest for such "public purposes." It condemns as "inadequate" present laws allowing sale or exchange of parcels up to 5,120 acres. Also, "no reason is apparent to the Commission for retention of lands needed for uses which require long-term private investment, materially alter the land and virtually exclude other use. Examples of this type are electric substations, canals, reservoirs, industrial sites and commercial building sites.... It is in the public interest to dispose of such lands...."

Mining interests already have free rein on public lands. Under the 98-year-old law still governing, the mere finding and extraction of mineral on public land gives a company automatic claim to it—and permanent possession for $2.50 to $5 per acre.

As honored guest at last year's National Western Mining Conference, Aspinall scornfully noted "increasing emotional demands that more and more of our public lands be restricted in their use and set aside for limited [recreational and conservation] purposes.... You and I know where the emotions are; you and I know what the probable results will be if emotions are supreme." Aspinall appealed, with commendably small pretense, "So, your first action towards fulfillment of the Commission's recommendations...will be to return to Congress those members of the Commission who are up for reelection."

Understandably, mining corporations want to retain laws presenting them with virtually free land, but they want claim size increased from 20 to 160 acres, with a maximum of 5,120 acres per company per state. The commission should encourage "open-pit mining while correcting existing legal impediments dampening its further growth," says a mining spokesman. Since future mining will be massive open-pit operations, allowable dump area for waste material should be increased a thousandfold: "a mine having 500 acres of mining claims may require 5,000 acres [almost eight square miles] for surface plant facilities and waste disposal areas." (Example: the steaming dumps of Climax Molybdenum, which fill a once-spectacular mountain valley in Colorado.) "Mining operations should not be unreasonably impeded by regulations pertaining to wilderness areas," the Mining Congress adds.

The concerns of the coal industry can be deduced from two statements by the mining lobby on "reclamation" of strip mine-devastated land: 1) the Government should pay the industry to reclaim because Interior permits payment "where the user is engaged in a semi-public, nonprofit activity designed for the public safety or welfare," and 2) "The industry...should not be required to attempt revegetation when it becomes obvious that revegetation is impractical or impossible."

The commission gives the mining industry all that it could hope for. Strip mining is encouraged. The report recommends claims of 5,000 acres or more, with "right to use sufficient surface for mining, including millsite and tailing areas," overriding state law where less permissive. It concedes only a need to collect "modest" royalties and to increase the present $2.50-to $5-per-acre bonanza ' 'enough to cover administrative costs of issuance of patents." Interior's right to remove threatened land from mineral entry would be all but abolished.

Rhetorical gestures are made to environment throughout the report. The pages are overgrown with hedges and verbiage planted to protect the commission. Profuse, vague qualifying phrases disguise meaning and render unelliptical quotation difficult. But qualification of commercial users' prerogatives is—hundreds of times—diluted by appeals to Government "reasonability," "flexibility" and "feasibility." Qualification of the handful of regulators' powers sternly demands "strict limits" and "limited discretion."

Rehabilitation of mine-devastated land? "Rehabilitation does not necessarily mean restoration," says the commission, but rather "feasible effort" based on "economic [not social] costs" and "availability of adequate technology." Entire mountains have been cut out of the most scenic ranges—on national forest land. No technology is adequate to restore them. At least four commissioners could not swallow the mineral resources section whole. In a formal separate opinion they proposed leasing of land and repeal of the Mining Law of 1872.

Lumber-industry attacks on public lands have long been notorious. Lumbermen's politicians fought creation of national forests, and today in those forests the industry gouges muddy labyrinths of roads, scalps whole sections and leaves impenetrable deserts of stumps and slash. The Government directly or indirectly pays for the maze of roads.

"Dominant use" of public lands for timber production "managed primarily on the basis of economic factors so as to maximize net dollar return" is urged as a legal requirement by the acquiescent commission. A quarter to a half of all public forest land would be subject to maximum yield of board feet. "Dominant use" philosophy flavors the entire report, which was being printed even while one commissioner solemnly assured SI that dominant uses would not be proposed. Big, old "overmature" trees would be eliminated: "Large sizes are not required to meet the increasing demands for pulpwood," for which scrubby trees are more suitable. Everywhere, more forests would be cut, more often. Much complaint is made of present inefficiency: "The public lands have large volumes of overmature timber, in part because of conservative cutting policies.... " Recommended, too, is a crash "catch-up" program of access roads to "salvage" lumber in wild areas.

The need for water has been another excuse to give away public domain. Hundreds of thousands of acres and thousands of miles of wild, trout-bearing streams have been submerged behind dams. Opponents are treated as if their fondest desire were to deprive little children of drinking water. States demand more control of water, as if clouds and river systems were not interstate by nature. The Land Law Report does not even recognize this problem.

Stockmen have been given grazing permits on public land for one-fifth of what they would pay on private land. These permits are "sold" to new owners for fancy prices. Hundreds of thousands of acres, for practical purposes, are untaxed private land.

"The rancher has had to buy his permit," argues stockmen's representative Joe Tudor. "If the government withdraws the permit, he has a right to compensation plus money for any improvements, like fences, put on the public lands. The grass is there," Tudor goes on, "and it's got to be consumed or it will be wasted. We believe the commission will want to turn over land to private owners to eliminate administrative costs and friction. And grazing is not inconsistent with other uses."

Grazing is compatible with other uses (although not with wilderness), and if ranchers complain that multiplying sportsmen and declining civility cause vandalism and defacement of the land, who can disagree? If they charge that "some of the new recreation 'sports,' particularly motor vehicles, are creating erosion and topsoil damage," thousands of miles of ruts and gullies support them.

Yet the New Mexico Cattle Growers advocate full disposal of public lands to local residents and say, "Land is worthless except in the light of its use by and for man."

The commission goes a little stronger. "Lands which are principally valuable for grazing" should be disposed of, on liberal terms, "including those in national forests...with grazing permittees given preference to buy them." Maximum forage should be the dominant use on all such land retained. "Much of the grazing land is unsuitable for any other use," the report says, but "control should be asserted over public access to and the use of retained grazing lands for nongrazing uses"—just in case recreationists might think otherwise.

The report encourages commercialization. Virtually every conservation group has strongly criticized the commission's recommendations, and several commission members and advisers expressed misgivings.

"You can forget about relying on the five years of 'impartial, unbiased' study of timber policy and related matters by the PLLRC," Representative John Saylor of Pennsylvania, who is on the commission, told House colleagues angrily.

"I don't care how thick that volume is," said Ann Dunbar, Saylor's aide. "It's nothing but an attempt to put in writing everything industrial interests have been trying to get pushed through for years. Representative Saylor could speak, but no one was listening. It was futile. He asked not to be reappointed, but other commission members said that if Saylor quit, they would, too. I understand Senator Jackson didn't think the commission was very useful, either. If you read carefully, only the letter of transmission was signed by members, not the report itself."

An aide who asked to remain unidentified said Commissioner Laurance Rockefeller privately was "very outspoken" about the report. "He felt outnumbered and outmaneuvered. He thought outside groups wrote the report."

The recent popular interest and concern for ecology and the environment owes much of its force to people sensitized by outdoor recreational experiences. One of the first dramatic results of that outpouring could be a public veto of any attempted raid on public lands. Retention would be a victory in itself.