On the Ownership of Public Lands

Jun 25, 2014

Few topics in the West stir up controversy more quickly than public lands—those places all Americans own together.  The latest headline involves some Utah county commissioner planning an ATV rally on public lands of archeological importance.  While some people see public lands management as federal land grabs and liberty restrictions, others value public ownership as protection for places from private exploitation.  But what does it really mean to own these lands?

The idea of common ownership of public lands—places managed by the BLM, Forest Service, or other such entity—is a familiar idea deeply rooted in American tradition.  Federal claims to the land were initially made to promote the settling of the West.  But as that process neared completion, Congress managed public lands for multiple uses.  As a result, we’ve come to think of land very strongly in terms of private vs. public ownership.

Some people believe that public ownership means the freedom to do whatever anyone wants.  But that view ignores a couple important points about ownership.

First, ownership is always matter of degree.  If you own a house, you can do pretty much what you want with it—except make it hazardous.  So we have building codes to make sure residents and their neighbors have safe houses.  If your house is also an historical landmark, you have less freedom because it has some importance to the community.  So even with private ownership, how much freedom you have depends on the kind of thing you own, and it almost always comes with at least some responsibilities to others.

Public ownership relates to objects of great public importance, and therefore comes with even more restrictions.  In fact, as philosopher Judith Andre argues, the general principle is that for the sake of the community, ownership of some things must be limited or even prohibited.  Think, for example, how important it is to protect a wilderness area that encompasses a vital watershed.

A second point about ownership is that, as Andre writes, “Property is not a relation between people and an object.  It is a relation among people about that object.”   So your rights to your house aren’t so much about you and your house; they’re about how you and other people define what you can and cannot do in relationship to each other about your house.

The key point is that ownership actually brings us into community, rather than separates us from it.  In fact, ownership is based on community.  This is especially true with public lands, where the rights and responsibilities of joint ownership have to be negotiated to establish a good relationship among people about the land.  That’s why collaborative processes behind, for example, the Blackfoot Challenge and the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, are such appropriate models for public lands policy-making.

It’s also the case, however, that the more we consider the kind of thing that public lands are—especially when it comes to wild places—the more the idea of ownership itself seems out of place.  How does ownership apply to towering ponderosa pines, delicate glacier lilies, or a passing elk?

Writer Jack Turner suggests that the West has been wounded by particular uses of language, especially the strong dualism of the public versus the private sector.  In Turner’s words:  “the world as a collection of resources, property rights and utility calculations.”  Thus, the National Forest Service motto is, “The Land of Many Uses.”

With public lands, the so-called “objects” we own and use are not just other inanimate objects like houses, but often wild places, with living creatures with a value of their own, in a precious and delicate set of relationships on which we all depend.  Ethically, then, ownership is an impoverished way to think about our relationship to the land, and even about our relationship to each other about the land.

Ethics stems from being members of communities, and our community includes the natural world.  As Aldo Leopold writes, “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community, to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for . . . fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

We may need concepts like public and private ownership to negotiate our legal relationships about the land.  But we dare not define our relationship with public lands only, or even primarily, in those terms.  To do so is to reduce nature to a world of objects at our disposal—a land of many uses, deserving of no respect other than what meets our fancy.  The members of both our human and natural communities deserve better.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs, at the University of Montana.