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April 21, 2013

The Great American Commons

Our National Forests cover 191 million acres in 40 states

From my home in Missoula, Montana I can walk north 120 miles or so to the Canadian border. I do not need a permit, nor will I have to pay any fees. I can stay as long as I like, hike, camp, forage for food, fish (with a state license), marvel at the scenery, and drink straight from unpolluted mountain streams. Other than a couple of road crossings I will be on public land the whole time. I can do the same thing after a short drive, heading south, again walking for 100 or more miles well into central Idaho, without needing a permission slip or paying for the privilege. Welcome to our National Forests—the Great American Commons.

You too can do the same thing, as our National Forest System spans over 191 million acres in 40 states and Puerto Rico. With a few exceptions designed to protect resources, you can walk without charge, and without needing anyone’s approval, anywhere in our National Forest System. You can also actively participate in managing your public lands, because the National Forest Management Act of 1976 mandates a planning process open to all. While the Forest Service ultimately retains management discretion, the agency is receptive to public comment and input, and citizens all across the country continue to shape how these lands are managed.

The story behind the creation of our National Forests is an oft-forgotten tale of two great American conservationists and commoners: Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. Though both had a strong utilitarian bent, and came from wealthy backgrounds, they shared an uncommon devotion to the public interest and reviled the excesses of unrestrained capitalism operating at the turn of the nineteenth century. Together Pinchot and Roosevelt outwitted and outmaneuvered the railroad syndicates, local politicians and an increasingly recalcitrant Congress, all of whom wanted to carve up the vast timber and water resources of the American West into private hands. Having witnessed the destruction of the great North Woods and the concentration of wealth and power in the transcontinental railroads, Pinchot and Roosevelt reserved tens of millions of acres forever in the public domain. It is that legacy that allows me – and you – to enjoy our public lands today, and know that this commons will be here for our grandchildren.

New York Times reporter Timothy Egan chronicles the creation of our National Forests, and the visionary foresight of Roosevelt and Pinchot in a recent book, “The Big Burn, Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.” Egan writes that “Roosevelt’s task was to persuade people not to just cherish their natural heritage but to understand that is was their right in a democracy to own it – every citizen holding a stake. In an era of free-for-all capitalism, it was revolutionary to insist, as he did, that the “rights of the public to the natural resources outweigh private rights.” Indeed, Roosevelt’s first message to Congress stated [T]he forest reserves should be set apart forever for the use and benefit of the people as a whole and not sacrificed to the short-sighted greed of a few.”

It is true that the Great American Commons has been repeatedly subjected to efforts to privatize the public domain. The second half of the twentieth century witnessed a six-fold increase in logging on National Forests, mostly with taxpayer subsidies, led by an agency captured by the timber industry. Periodic attempts to turn the National Forests over to the states – in 2013 both the Utah and Idaho legislatures are considering such measures though they are legally impotent—show that the public domain is never far from enclosure. Yet the determined efforts of citizens have brought about an 80% decline in timber harvests, and changes within the agency have set it on a path towards sustainable, ecosystem management.

The Progressive-era philosophy of Pinchot and Roosevelt extended into many domains; water resources, for example were also viewed as a public good. Numerous National Parks, operating under a different mandate, were also established. These actions flowed from a clear vision that natural resources belong to everyone, including future generations, a vision inspired by conversations with John Muir and countless nights under the stars. It is a vision that resonates today, as we continue to enjoy, cherish and protect the Great American Commons – our National Forests.