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America's Changing View of Its Public Lands and Waters (1955-2004): The New Paradigm

Jerome C. Muys, Proceedings of 50th Annual Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute (2004)

The land was ours before we were the land's. . . . Something we were withholding made us weak Until we found out that it was ourselves We were withholding from . . .

the land vaguely realizing westward, But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, Such as she was, such as she would become.

--Robert Frost, The Gift Outright

This paper attempts to chronicle in a necessarily very general way how America's vision of its “public lands and waters,” or as Professor George Coggins more aptly describes them, its “public natural resources,” 1 has changed since this annual Institute was launched 50 years ago. The 1950s' paradigm reflected a predominant focus on “production” of resources from almost all of the 750 (now about 630) million acres of public lands other than the national parks. The new paradigm encompasses the entire spectrum of values of those lands, of which production is but one among others, some still commercial, such as intensive recreation use or urban and suburban development, others relatively intangible, such as preservation of wilderness lands, wild rivers, and endangered plant, fish, and wildlife species. However characterized, the last half century has witnessed Americans no longer “withholding ourselves” in weak passivity to public land values, but becoming more aware of a broader range of values and actively engaged in protecting and promo