Keeping Faith with Nature: Ecosystems, Democracy, and America's Public Lands

Keeping Faith with Nature: Ecosystems, Democracy, and America's Public Lands

by Robert B. Keiter

As the twenty-first century dawns, public land policy is entering a new era. This timely book examines the historical, scientific, political, legal, and institutional developments that are changing management priorities and policies—developments that compel us to view the public lands as an integrated ecological entity and a key biodiversity


As the twenty-first century dawns, public land policy is entering a new era. This timely book examines the historical, scientific, political, legal, and institutional developments that are changing management priorities and policies—developments that compel us to view the public lands as an integrated ecological entity and a key biodiversity stronghold.
Once the background is set, each chapter opens with a specific natural resource controversy, ranging from the Pacific Northwest’s spotted owl imbroglio to the struggle over southern Utah’s Colorado Plateau country. Robert Keiter uses these case histories to analyze the ideas, forces, and institutions that are both fomenting and retarding change.
Although Congress has the final say in how the public domain is managed, the public land agencies, federal courts, and western communities are each playing important roles in the transformation to an ecological management regime. At the same time, a newly emergent and homegrown collaborative process movement has given the public land constituencies a greater role in administering these lands. Arguing that we must integrate the new imperatives of ecosystem science with our devolutionary political tendencies, Keiter outlines a coherent new approach to natural resources policy.

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Yale University Press
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Keeping Faith with Nature

By Robert B. Keiter

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Robert B. Keiter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09273-3

Chapter One


When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. JOHN MUIR (1869)

The ecological ethic of interdependence may be, in fact, a moral truth. DONALD WORSTER (1977)

Is a new era dawning on the western public domain? With the twenty-first century upon us, the nation's policy for public lands and natural resources appears to be in a state of flux. How else to explain the near-mythical status that the previously unknown northern spotted owl has attained, or the gray wolf's transformation from the beast of destruction to a key missing ecological link? How else to explain the demise of the revered Smokey Bear image and the reintroduction of fire as an important component of the landscape? And how else to explain the heralded advent of ecological management and restoration policies within all of the principal federal agencies responsible for the public lands? The precise contours of this new era may not yet be fully defined or understood, but there is little doubt that new societal values and the ecological sciences are forcing major changes in how we view and manage natural resources across the public domain. And there is little doubt that our existing institutions, laws, and policies are being sorely tested to accommodate the emerging age of ecology on public lands.

No single event accounts for the changes that are afoot. But then, no single event signaled the beginning of a new policy era during the waning years of the nineteenth century when a new utilitarian conservation philosophy first surfaced. That conservation philosophy, of course, has dominated natural resource management throughout the past century. Indeed, deeply ingrained utilitarian beliefs were originally invoked to discount the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest logging controversy and to justify eradication of the wolf throughout the western states. These same beliefs also taught us that fire is bad and must be extinguished promptly and that preservation sentiments-if valid at all-must be constricted to narrowly delineated reserves, preferably composed of lands otherwise of little economic value. But these long-standing beliefs are under attack today as never before, and they are giving way-however grudgingly-to a new ecological order on the public domain. The transition, as is true of virtually all major policy transitions, is neither orderly nor complete. It is, nonetheless, being played out in various legislative, administrative, and judicial venues and, most important, on the ground.

Before 1990, few people other than a handful of scientists had heard of the northern spotted owl. Fewer people yet would have been prepared to predict that the Pacific Northwest's powerful timber industry would soon be brought to its knees by a small cadre of environmental activists and their lawyers acting on behalf of the spotted owl. Yet that is precisely what happened. On May 23, 1991, Seattle federal court judge William Dwyer made headlines across the nation when he issued an injunction forbidding all commercial logging on the Pacific Northwest's expansive public timberlands. Judge Dwyer's ruling, which culminated a decade-long struggle over federal timber policy in the region's diverse ancient forest ecosystems, triggered a storm of protest from the powerful logging industry as well as the rural communities that depended on public timber to maintain scores of local mills. Environmental advocates, drawing upon a welter of environmental laws, persuaded the judge that accelerated federal timber harvesting policies had imperiled the northern spotted owl, a reclusive bird that had come to dominate a rancorous debate over the fate of the region's timberlands as well as the nation's endangered species legislation. Following the ruling, the public land agencies were forced to acknowledge that business as usual was no longer the order of the day. The future suddenly appeared very uncertain on the region's federal forests.

Another three and a half years would pass before Judge Dwyer was finally convinced to lift his injunction and allow logging to resume-at a decidedly reduced scale-on the nation's most productive public timberlands. By then, Congress had proven itself hopelessly deadlocked over the matter, an unprecedented presidential conference had been convened to defuse the regional crisis, and a high-profile team of federal scientists had developed a new ecology-based forest management plan. The proposed regional forest plan encompassed over 24 million acres of public land in three different states, extended legal protection to over 400 different species found throughout the region's ancient forests, and placed nearly 80 percent of the forest acreage off limits for timber harvesting. According to its authors, the plan contemplated a comprehensive ecosystem management strategy that first protected species diversity and ecological processes, and then permitted logging only where it would not endanger forest ecosystems. Judge Dwyer, after reviewing the plan, grudgingly affirmed its legality and lifted his injunction, admonishing that "given the condition of the forests, there is no way the agencies could comply with the environmental laws without planning on an ecosystem basis." The primary lesson from the controversy was clear: federal land managers must be prepared to address and protect ecosystems on the nation's public lands. The secondary lesson was also clear: science and litigation have the power to reshape the natural resource policy agenda on public lands.

Nearly a thousand miles to the east, officials at Yellowstone National Park confronted a different dilemma. Having once rid the park of dreaded wolves, park officials were now poised to restore the extirpated gray wolf to the park ecosystem. During the 1920s, as part of a national predator extermination campaign, Yellowstone rangers killed the last park wolf in what Park Service officials now regarded as a misguided effort to protect other wildlife then perceived as more valuable. Over the intervening 60 years, the wolf's image underwent a gradual transformation, shifting from the beast of destruction to an important ecological cog. In 1974, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service included the Rocky Mountain gray wolf as one of the first animals listed on the new endangered species registry, and proceeded to develop a recovery plan calling for wolf restoration in Yellowstone National Park and other remote western wilderness areas. Local ranchers objected vehemently to the wolf restoration proposal and enlisted their congressional allies to block the proposal for more than a decade through a series of budget riders, congressional studies, and other political maneuvers. But in 1994, utilizing a new statutory provision that enabled ranchers to protect their livestock against depredating wolves, federal officials authorized the introduction of seven pairs of Canadian gray wolves into the Yellowstone backcountry as an experimental population. After years of frustrating setbacks, the path was suddenly cleared to reestablish historic predator-prey relationships that had not existed in the park for over 50 years.

Since then, the wolf population has grown at a rapid pace. By 2000, more than 115 wolves divided into 11 different packs were roaming the Greater Yellowstone region. Although isolated livestock depredation incidents have occurred outside the park, the wolves have concentrated their attention and legendary hunger on the park's abundant elk population. As predicted, park visitation numbers increased in the aftermath of the wolf reintroduction, as both old and new visitors sought the opportunity to observe the wolves in their new domain. However, faced with a legal challenge from local ranchers, a Wyoming federal judge ruled that the entire wolf reintroduction program violated the Endangered Species Act's experimental population provision. Finding that naturally occurring wolves were already present in the park, the judge held that the statute precluded an experimental population release of new wolves. But after ordering removal of the reintroduced wolves, the judge stayed his order pending an appeal of the matter. Although the ruling placed the wolf reintroduction program in legal limbo, the wolves flourished, reclaiming their historic role in the region's ecosystem. Two years later, when an appellate court finally overturned the wolf removal order, the notion of restoring extirpated predators and other species to public lands became a firm reality.

The image of wildfire may evoke even more fear than the wolf. Over the past century, federal and state officials have worked assiduously to control fire on public lands in order to protect precious timber and range resources as well as surrounding private property and scenic vistas. No less an icon than Smokey Bear carried the message that a charred landscape is a ruined landscape. The lonely fire lookout and the heroic smoke jumper represented Smokey's real-life counterparts in this annual battle against the forces of nature. Each year, as spring unfolded into the summer fire season, agency scientists took careful measure of precipitation patterns and regularly forecast the likelihood of devastating conflagrations. Fire managers paid close heed to these forecasts and prepared themselves to deploy legions of firefighters at the first sign of trouble. The goal was simple and clear: suppress all fires to protect the region's vulnerable resources and the livelihoods of those who depend on them. For the most part, the responsible agencies were remarkably successful at extinguishing fires before they could spread across the landscape.

The summer of 1988, however, exploded several fire myths. With fully one-third of Yellowstone National Park burning, the nation watched transfixed as a phalanx of firefighters proved helpless in the face of the advancing flames that imperiled such venerable landmarks as Old Faithful Lodge and the historic park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs. Spurred by tinder-dry conditions and unrelenting winds, the Yellowstone fires jumped hastily constructed fire lines, deep riverine canyons, and administrative boundaries, burning randomly through the park's dense lodgepole pine forests until an early fall snowstorm finally brought them under control. As the Yellowstone drama was unfolding, the Park Service confirmed that its policy was to allow lightning-ignited fires to burn unchecked in the park's backcountry in an effort to emulate historic ecological processes. Scientists explained that the West's high-elevation forests historically had experienced high-intensity fires at 200-400-year intervals, which was nature's way of regenerating these coniferous ecosystems. In the investigation that followed, agency officials widely acknowledged that a century of fire suppression had converted the West's forests into potential tinderboxes and rendered them more susceptible to insect infestations and other diseases. With the forest's plight exposed, the real problem was clarified: How to restore the damaged landscape? For some the answer was to accelerate timber harvest levels to both mimic historical fire regimes and salvage valuable timber; others viewed such proposals with suspicion, fearing another large-scale logging assault on the public forests. But nearly everyone concurred that fire represents an important ecological process, and that it must be accorded a larger role in the public domain.

Biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration cannot take place in a vacuum. Over the years, we have created nature reserves-national parks, wildlife refuges, and designated wilderness areas-as sanctuaries to nourish and protect wildlife resources, scenic landscapes, and other natural features. Ours has been an enclave strategy, based on drawing sacrosanct boundary lines to preserve the enclosed natural bounty. But neither the spotted owl nor the wolf nor fire respects conventional boundaries or the ownership expectations they represent. In fact, the legal boundaries we have drawn on maps to delineate protected reserves, multiple-use lands, private property, and the like are essentially irrelevant from an ecological perspective. Yet our political and legal systems, committed to the need for certainty and stability in property relationships, attach ownership rights and responsibilities based on these lines; landowners and managers are expected-even obligated-to manage their property in conformance with carefully crafted legal mandates and expectations. The Forest Service is expected to harvest timber on its multiple-use lands, the Park Service is expected to preserve its holdings in a primitive state, and most private landowners expect to do just as they please on their own lands. However, a growing national commitment to ecological preservation and restoration calls these expectations into question, just as it calls the current enclave strategy of nature conservation into question.

The answer, according to ecological scientists, is to significantly expand and interconnect our nature reserve system to encompass a full array of ecosystems and to enable natural processes to unfold with minimal human intervention. Although an expansive nature reserve system with strategic linkage corridors might reduce future spotted owl or gray wolf controversies, the proposition is both highly provocative and profoundly difficult. It provokes intense opposition because it would expand the protected land base by removing productive federal lands from multiple-use management and perhaps even limit development options on adjacent private lands. It raises difficult management concerns because ecosystems are not static locations but dynamic and constantly changing entities, which makes it difficult to delineate meaningful permanent boundaries. One answer, therefore, is to better coordinate management of our existing reserve system with adjacent public and private lands. A more controversial answer is to acknowledge that the only effective means to protect biodiversity and ecological health is to expand the current reserve system by adding more lands to our existing national parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges. In either event, another lingering-and hotly contested-question is whether management of these lands requires active human intervention or whether nature should be allowed to take its own course. In short, to meet ecology's challenges, we must begin rethinking our enclave-based nature preservation system as well as related interventionist management policies.

Public lands are one of the West's defining characteristics. Approximately 663 million acres, or 29 percent, of the nation's land is owned by the federal government.


Excerpted from Keeping Faith with Nature by Robert B. Keiter Copyright © 2003 by Robert B. Keiter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert B. Keiter is Wallace Stegner Professor of Law and director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. He is also the co-editor of The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Redefining America’s Wilderness Heritage, published by Yale University Press.

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