An Idiot's Field Guide to US Public and Tribal Land Management


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Sat, 03/31/2018 - 12:00am to 3:00am
Info and Advocacy Resources for All


To make some of this information easier to get to (less scrolling than on the episode page) here it is in a hopefully more digestible format. You can hear a somewhat impromptu interview about these topics here. All opinions expressed were my own. For clarification, there's no judgement as I too sign many online petitions, buy camping gear at REI, and haven't been to most of these places. But I do care, and I do want to do my part to help so if you're a politics and law minded person, keep a weather eye out for any Congressional actions targeting the Antiquities Act and changes to the 9B rules (discussed below) as those are the lawmaking actions that can have a huge impact on our public lands. In general, keep an eye on the doings of Zinke's Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management. There's a lot of good folks advocating for these areas and there are SO many ways to get involved. This is the tip of the iceberg.

The Field Guide Overview:

Firstly, there are a LOT of organizations managing public and tribal lands for a variety of conservation and resource management purposes (you can see the map below). In no particular order there is the National Park Service, the US Forest Service,  US Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, and other organizations at the state and county levels which have their own jurisdictions and criteria. There are federally recognized Native American tribes with lands that, while conceptually established via treaty on the basis of a tribe being its own sovereign entity, have a variety of management frameworks depending on the legal status of the tribe and just how the land was alloted. Many tribes were forced to give up ancestral lands under extreme duress then forced to occupy lands they had no prior historical connection with. This disrupted the locations and cultures of other tribes who were prior on those lands. A reservation is a legal designation for a piece of land managed by a federally recognized tribe under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There is a legal and fiduciary relationship called the federal Indian trust responsibility between the government and the tribes. This is basically a contractual obligation to responsibly manage these tribal lands for the best cultural, financial, and long-term health of the tribe. The long and the short of it is that managing public lands is a complex business both at the federal and state level. 

Secondly, there are many types of land designations, made by the various groups above with different levels of legal protection and development restrictions. Presidents are allowed to declare National Monuments and, at least originally, refuge areas within lands already owned or administered by the federal government. Monuments can become parks but that requires an act of Congress. ONLY Congress can declare a national park, which has stronger protections under the law. Wildlife Refuges can now be designated in several ways but are all managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Their protection level is on par with being a National Monument or National Forest. National Wilderness can be selected from any of the former categories—monuments, refuges, parks, forests—and achieve the most stringent level of protection from human encroachment. They are nominated from existing federal lands by a combination of the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the US Forest Service. They must be approved by Congress, on a state by state basis, and must meet a very strict critera that, at its purest, amounts to a recognition that no consistent human habitation or activity has historically been present. Any access must be non-motorized and vistors are asked to respect the “Leave No Trace” guidelines. As for National Forests and other generally designated conservation lands, they are set aside not with the sole intention of allowing them to remain untouched, but with the mission to responsibly utilize the land to provide the most for the public, which means they can be opened to mining, timber, and other industries with the idea that they will enrich the states or nation as a whole rather than just the private company taking all the trees, minerals, etc. How certain companies get away with justifying mountain top removal as being responsible groundskeeping is beyond me. I would be curious to know, if anyone reading this is an actual reporter. National forests are managed by the Department of Agriculture---this explains why Zinke was able to fast track mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But wait, that's a wilderness area, right? No, it's technically a national forest. And we don't have time to get to marine sanctuaries—they are designated by a combo of NOAA, the public and Congress, surprise—and marine monuments—designated by the president. Dizzy yet? Stick with me and we'll try to sort this out.

Now that we know what we are talking about...or do we...the fact of the matter remains that anything except the Wilderness (which is a very difficult designation to be granted) may or may not be legally vulnerable to development and resource extraction, especially now. Technically speaking drilling and fracking CAN legally happen in national parks where there is a “split estate,” this means that the federal government owns the surface land and a private company owns the mineral rights underneath the surface. Of course they would only be able to access these minerals by destroying everything owned by the government (AKA, we the people) above wherever they wish to drill or mine. These split estates are monitored under something called the 9B rules. I highly suggest taking a peek through that linked article and following what Congress members are doing surrounding those rules as this is what Zinke may be trying to abolish in order to unleash the hydrocarbon industry from their “burdensome” responsibilities to a) not destroy the parks and b) make us worthwhile amounts of money and not soak us with their legacy of clean up bills once they leave. So okay, now we're all really confused...what does all of this mean and how does this relate to Trump and going camping (or snorkling) this summer? 

Well, it means that as presidents can designate monuments, they can also apparently de-designate monuments, or at least shrink them.  Trump is the first to try this since the 1960's and certainly the first to attempt it with such speed, secrecy, and internal lobbying pressure. The move requires a rather radical reinterpretation of the Antiquities Act and a few other laws from the 1960s-1970s, which some Republicans in Congress are frankly trying to overturn or drastically weaken. If these legal arguments win in court or in Congress and a precedent is set or the laws rewritten, it effectively means Trump, or any other commander-in-chief, could re-zone the Statue of Liberty to sink an oil well there. There are 129 national monuments in the US and under currently proposed legal changes any of them could technically be at risk, along with all of our already at-risk national forests, refuges and national parks under split estates. Native American lands are also at risk because many sacred areas are not designated within the boundaries of tribal reservations. These lands--like ANWR, Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and the Greater Chaco landscape to name but a few--can also be sacred to multipe tribes at a time. Each tribe has different views and practices relating to the sacred as well so there are a LOT of stakeholders in these areas in addition to the general public, energy industries, and outdoor conservationists/enthusiasts. All of this information can be gleaned for yourself below if you'd like to make up your own mind in these matters. 


For a closer view of the USGS Federal Land Map go here where you will be able to see the land regions of the US organized by the organization responsible for managing and conserving it.

For a comprehensive, interactive view of threatened National Monuments go here.

For a now five-year old review of National Parks currently or potentially facing oil and gas extraction, go here. Under the current administration the list has grown.

Info and Legal-ish Resources:

An infographic on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's policies and proposals during his first year.

Follow the legal fights with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Bureau of Indian Affairs FAQs for the basics on federal Indian policies and legal standing.

Department of the Interior overview of public land designations.

Good resource for public lands information:  National Parks Conservation Association.

REALLY IMPORTANT RULES to keep drilling out of parks that Congress wants to rewrite--9B Rules.

Some info on the Antiquities Act of 1906

The National Historic Preservation Act 

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

Congress' latest attack on the Antiquities Act is not about National Parks. The Pacific Standard. October 26, 2017.

This Land is Your Land--FABULOUS, informative serial coverage of American public land issues, perhaps ironically by the British, in The Guardian.


Our Arctic Refuge and the Gwich'in Steering Committee--for news on ANWR efforts

Alaska's Arctic national wildlife refuge now has a $1bn price tag on it. The Guardian. December 20, 2017 

Alaska senator: Arctic refuge drilling sale could start next year. The Hill. March 5, 2018 

Trees Older than America: A primeval Alaskan forest is at risk in the Trump era. The Guardian. March 22, 2018 


Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Save the Boundary Waters

--Utah and Western States--

Bears Ears Coalition, news and action information from the tribes.

Grand Staircase-Escalante, Western Resource Advocates. A 25 year old organization working from Montana to Arizona on responsible land management and engagement policies.

Conservation Lands Foundation, the nation's only non-profit solely focused on conservation lands. 

Alliance for a Better Utah, a state-level government watchdog seeking transparency from elected officials.

Bears Ears video by Patagonia.

Oil was central in decision to shrink Bears Ears Monument, emails show. The New York Times. March 2, 2018 

Starting today, companies can mine in former Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The Wilderness Society. February 2, 2018. 

--Four Corners Specific--

San Juan Citizens Alliance

Flower Hill Institute

Activist coalition to address hydrocarbon extraction in the Greater Chaco Region,

All Pueblo Council of Governors


Friends of the Cascade-Siskiyou

For Oregonians, in addition to the established national networks in part listed above, you can learn about ecological preservation within our state's grassroots communities. Organizations like BarkRewild, and Columbia Riverkeepers can help you get your bearings on a local level that can then springboard you farther afield if you choose.

Sound Advocacy Resources:

For Bernie Krause's experiences on recording the sound of extinction, go here. 

For Gordon Hempton's experiences on recording the disappearing sound of natural quiet, go here



USGS Federal Land Management Map March 2017

USGS Federal Land Management Map March 2017

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