Public Lands insanity

Remember when Strange Maps “discovered” that so much of the 13 western states is owned by the Federal Government?  On the one hand, it was nice to see people paying attention to public lands in the west.

Public lands in a western state, with grazing cattle. Wild Earth Guardians image.

Public lands in a western state, with grazing cattle. Wild Earth Guardians image.

Public lands.  Photo from the Montana Wildlife Federation

Public lands. Photo from the Montana Wildlife Federation

At the Bathtub, we remarked on the history of the issue with a map that showed where the publicly-owned lands really are (the Strange Maps version only showed a dot in the middle of each state proportionate to the federal land held in the state.)  On the other hand, it was an open invitation for know-nothings and know-littles to jump in with silly ideas.  Remarkably, the post remained free of such folderol — until just recently.

None of these sites gives any serious thought to the idea.  None provides a scintilla of an iota of analysis to indicate it would be a good idea.

As one of the the principal spokesmen for the Sagebrush Rebellion in the early days, I want it known that I’ve thought these issues through, and argued them through, and followed the documentation for 30 years (Holy frijole!  I’m old!).  Issues with public lands revolve around stewardship.  Bad stewardship is not improved by a change in ownership.  Ownership change has all too often only led to worse stewardship.  Selling off the public lands is a generally stupid idea.

Certain local circumstances change the nature of a tiny handful of such deals — but not often, not in many places, and not enough to make a significant contribution to retiring any debt the federal government owns.

On the other hand, incomes from these lands typically runs a few multiples of the costs of managing them.  The Reagan administration discovered the lands were a great source of money to offset losses in other places, and for that reason (I suspect) never really got on the Sagebrush Rebellion band wagon — or, maybe Reagan’s higher officials just didn’t get it.

It’s troubling that such a flurry of stupidity strikes now, during a transition of presidents. This is how stupid ideas get traction, like kudzu on a cotton farm, while no one is paying deep attention.  Let’s put this idea back into its coffin with a sagebrush stake in its heart.

Bottom line:  Keep public lands in federal trust.  The Sagebrush Rebellion is over.  The sagebrush won.


Speaking of presidential transitions, who should be Secretary of Interior?  Stay tuned.


Update 2014: The original GSA map showing percentages of federal holdings in each state (including Indian Reservations as federal holdings), as published in Strange Maps when it was still active.

Update 2014: The original GSA map showing percentages of federal holdings in each state (including Indian Reservations as federal holdings), as published in Strange Maps when it was still active.

8 Responses to Public Lands insanity

  1. […] Public lands issues are greatly given to great misunderstanding; this is not new […]


  2. Scott Hanley says:

    Aw, c’mon, Ed. You sure you can’t work up a good belly laugh over “the public lands have all been mortgaged to the UN?” The strange part is, I worked in Yellowstone for sixteen summers and never once saw a black helicopter, even though there’s a helipad right behind the Old Faithful ranger station. Them UN fellers sure are sneaky.


  3. Ediacaran says:

    Just want to point out that some of the huge tracts of land owned by the Federal Government are used to provide for the common defense, which I find to be a laudable (as well as constitutional) goal. Just a reminder to some to be careful what you wish for.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    And frankly, the idea of a buffalo commons is a good one. I’m perplexed at the proposal to sell off wild lands to purchase more, when what we need is a greater amount of such wild lands, not equal, and not less. Thanks for dropping by, Prof. Popper.


  5. Frank Popper says:

    Anyone wishing further information on the Buffalo Commons proposal should look at my website, The idea originated with me and my wife, Deborah Popper, a geographer at the City University of New York/ College of Staten Island and Princeton University. The idea has no particular connection with the Sagebrush Rebellion approach to selling the federal public lands. Best wishes,
    Frank Popper
    Rutgers and Princeton Universities,


  6. Bill says:

    Not sure why saying I was surprised by a fact which was previously unknown to me puts me on the wrong side of the argument.

    Perhaps you could explain how expressing surprise = “weighing in on the wrong side.

    There was no opinion pro or con expressed in the post, just passing along a fact I encountered.


  7. Ed Darrell says:

    As I noted at your blog, James, you make no carve out for Yellowstone when you talk about public lands. If you wish to go back and start qualifying your comments, limiting what you’re talking about, be my guest. Until you do, you have suggested we sell off Yellowstone — and the Tetons, and Zion Canyon, and Grand Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly, the Bob, the Davy Crockett National Forest, and much else that you probably also didn’t give a second thought to. By failing to note you wish to leave Yellowstone out of the deal, you’ve put it in. You didn’t say reserve anything from sale, either. And I’ll wager I can show you lands on almost any National Forest or tract of Bureau of Land Management land that will take your breath away. At that point, you’ll say “I didn’t mean to sell that jewel.” Too late. This is how a lot of stupid ideas get going in government. I’m trying to stop the stupidity now.

    You can rest easy that you’re not alone — look at the list of others joining you, most without question, most without clues, just like you. Am I the first to point out it’s a stupid idea? Then things are much worse than we imagined.

    Yellowstone is a National Park. I was unaware there is any educated person in North America, at least, who did not know that. When I mentioned Yellowstone, I assumed you had at least an inkling of what you were talking about. I apologize for assuming you know anything at all about public lands — it was clearly my mistake.

    In short, you’ve confirmed my suspicion that you don’t really have very many clues about what it is you claimed to be discussing. Not my problem, except when you make such posts, which amount to your coming over to my house to urinate in my pool. Please stop.

    If you have a point beyond what you’ve already said, by all means, make it. I cannot know what you do not post, however. Defenders of the public lands and the U.S. Constitution are not mind readers, as a rule. I can only go on what you wrote. If you wrote in error, you can correct it.

    No, you didn’t say to sell everything. You left the Great Smokies out of the stuff you mentioned with any specificity. You’re probably close enough to the Smokies to know better. You really should visit Yellowstone, and Great Basin, and Big Bend, and Cedar Breaks, and Bryce Canyon, and Canyonlands, and see why it’s a bad idea outside of Tennessee, too.

    P.S. — Go to the people who sold you the bell for advice on making it work properly. If that information is lost, you might want to try this site:

    Or, you might try contacting someone who rings regularly — like the ringers at the National Cathedral:


  8. James Grant says:

    Wow….that is amazing. You have a profound hermeneutic of suspicion taking place in your reading of my comments. Unbelievable. I hope you do not treat everyone that way.

    Just so your readers know that I am the Religious naif you referred to, they should also know you have a failure to not only read closely but also to pay attention once I clarify things. You jumped on something that was not intended, and even after I clarified you still didn’t listen. There are several problems here:

    1) Again, I didn’t say sell everything.

    2) You mentioned Yellowstone specifically, and I did not.

    3) You did not mention national parks in general in your first comment.

    4) I disagree with you that what can and should be sold has already been sold.

    That is the point. Now we could debate these things, but that is not something I am interested in. It will just be a matter of disagreement.

    Instead, I am interested in you learning to read with charity, giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

    That is not what you did with me, even after an attempted explanation. Unless you have failed to understand what I mean, I do not want to sell Yellowstone, or national parks in general. That was not my point.


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