The Politics of Managing Public Lands

public lands

Abstract: Like so much today, the topic of federal land ownership is highly politicized. Two cases in the news highlight the tensions between the two sides of the public lands debate. On one side are those who believe that it is appropriate for the federal government to protect the lands and resources in national parks, forests and other public lands so that they remain in good shape for current and future generations. On the other side are those who believe that Washington overreaches its authority in governing the use of far-off lands, and should transfer this authority to local and state governments.


Teaching suggestions:

Below are excerpts from two groups who hold opposing views on the purpose and future of public land. Students can analyze the two side’s arguments and hold a debate or classroom discussion about the relative merits of each.


Our public lands – millions of acres of forests, mountains, rivers, and plains – are a part of who we are. Right now, powerful special interests and their political allies are waging an aggressive campaign to sell off public lands in the west. They want to see our national lands privatized (sold for energy development, private real estate development, etc.) for short-term gain, at the expense of our shared American inheritance. This public land heist threatens hundreds of millions of acres of national forests, rangelands, wildlife refuges, parks, wilderness areas, and historic sites, but it also threatens the fundamental notion that our public lands belong to everyone. They exist for the good of all, not the profit of a few.


We all want a healthy environment, abundant recreation, and safe, vibrant communities…but distant, unaccountable federal bureaucracy is blocking public access, increasing wildfires, destroying our environment, and decimating communities. It’s time to restore balance (give ownership of this federally-owned land to the states) so willing states can tend our unique public lands with local care – more like a garden, or a park, and less like a “hands-off, don’t touch” Washington DC museum.

Each of these groups hosts a website with a video to reinforce its argument. After reading these excerpts, and perhaps watching the videos, students can make note of what claims from each side require evidence in order to be convincing, and then do brief research to see what data exists to back up each claim. After doing this research, students can discuss whether one side is more convincing than the other? Students can also discuss whether data alone can convince Americans to feel one way or the other about this topic? Or is there a fundamental difference in thinking between these two groups about the purpose of public land, and if so, what is this difference and how does it influence the arguments?

*The views expressed by these quotes do not imply an endorsement of either the California History-Social Science Project or the University of California. This resource is offered to teachers as a way to support student inquiry and promote the consideration of multiple perspectives when discussing controversial issues in a history-social science classroom.