Our nation’s history, and the history of the lands that we inhabit, are inextricably intertwined. Ranchers, miners, loggers, and intrepid homesteaders of the Old West embodies manifest destiny era ideals that set our nation on a trajectory which continues to shape the choices we make today. Laws enacted to speed westward expansion and resolve land ownership indelibly marked the Western landscape, where the vast majority of our public lands are found today.
The US government acquired the Western frontier with federal blood and treasure, and then enacted laws conveying much of that landscape to states, railroads, and the indomitable men and women who personiﬁed Old West ideals. The laws that transferred millions of acres of land out of federal ownership, and that retained other lands as part of our nation’s treasured landscapes, also created property rights and expectations that provide important sideboards on our transition to a New West. Some of those laws remain in force, supplemented by new laws protecting wildlife, wild places, and the public’s voice in public land management. Our public land mangers face a difﬁcult task in ﬁnding the balance required by a complex legal framework, and communities that grew up around Old West imperatives sometimes struggle to adapt to New West values.
Understanding the role public lands have played in American history helps explain who we are today. This understanding illuminates the tensions underpinning disputes like the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and state efforts to wrest control of our public lands from the federal government. Lurking behind these battles are long simmering questions over the values we seek from our public lands. As past is prelude, we must understand where we came from as we strive to chart a course deﬁning a Next West.
Ruple, J., Western Public Land Law and the Evolving Management Landscape, in The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands (Ore. State Univ. Press 2020)