Is No Use Good Use?

Public Lands Report IV

Summary

Americans are on the fast track to land preservation as more and more federal land is set aside at an increasingly rapid pace. Now is the time to pause and ask if locking up great expanses of land provides the good stewardship that we want for our public lands. Holly Lippke Fretwell of PERC takes a closer look at the ecological and economic consequences of land preservation on such a vast scale.

Already, 105 million acres of federal land are designated as wilderness and 232 million more acres are restricted for parks and wildlife refuges, scenic areas, old-growth habitat, and the list goes on. More than 120 million acres of private land also are under federal control to protect wetlands, farmland, and habitat for threatened and endangered species. In total it amounts to an area more than twice the size of Texas. And waiting in the wings is the roadless rule, a plan that will add nearly 60 million acres of Forest Service land to the restricted category.

Multiple use was once the guiding principle for public land management. It was a sincere effort to meet the many and diverse needs of the American public.While some land is certainly better left "untrammeled by man," other areas should be treated to reduce the danger of catastrophic fire, thinned to increase water flow in critical watersheds, and managed to provide wildlife habitat. Increasing demands for recreation should be addressed so that the impacts are not concentrated in limited areas resulting in damage to both water and scenic quality.

Lands should be managed for their highest valued uses. Those with wilderness attributes should be managed for that value, and land best suited to recreation or timber production should be managed for those values. Only by acknowledging the various land use values can we be the best stewards of our public lands.

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Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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