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Photo of a wagon train.  (BLM)
Wagon train.  (BLM)

Is Democracy Compatible with Conservation?

By Patricia Nelson Limerick

If you pay attention to the history of the Bureau of Land Management, you will soon be wrestling with one of the most consequential questions of the last two centuries.

The practices we cluster under the category “conservation” all hold in common a commitment to restrain some uses of natural resources so that those resources are available in the future.  Finding the right relationship between use and restraint is a riddle that accompanies every BLM employee in the 21st century through every working day.

And now add to this conundrum a significant historical fact:  the practices of conservation originated in very different times and, more to the point, in very different political systems.  When you trace the origins of conservation as an ideal and as a practice, you land in two unsettling and overlapping territories:  the European world of monarchy and aristocracy and the extension of European imperial power over distant colonies.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, on the estates of kings, emperors, lords, dukes, earls, and barons, enthusiasm for hunting led to the purposeful conservation of habitat for game animals.  Limiting or even prohibiting the access of commoners to the lands of monarchs and aristocrats was a key feature of early conservation. 

Starting even earlier, in the 17th century, naturalists accompanied the leaders of imperial enterprise on their voyages and expeditions.  With their attention focused on the exotic flora and fauna of distant lands, these naturalists wrote enthusiastically about their discoveries and pushed colonial governors into taking action to preserve these treasures from exhaustion or depletion.  Here, too, the exercise of power over subordinated human beings was a central feature of conservation, as native-born locals found new restrictions on their access to plants, animals, and lands that had once served as essential sources for their subsistence.

The rise of democracy knocked the pins out from under many traditions and customs.  At the time of this nation’s origin, the tension between a democratic political system and the practices of conservation that had arisen in monarchies and empires was comparatively unrecognized. 

If the question had come to the attention of the Founders, it might well have seemed that democracy and conservation would prove to be inherently incompatible.  The early land laws of the new Republic all involved some form of “disposal” of the public domain into private ownership.  The idea of restraining the access of individual citizens to the ownership and use of land seemed squarely at odds with democratic ideology.  Occasional efforts to use the Army to remove squatters, who had taken up land claims ahead of the government’s surveys, were massively unpopular and often denounced as a return to the arbitrary exercise of imperial power.  (The use of the Army to remove Indian people was considerably more accepted at the time.)

In the West, the Jeffersonian agrarian dream hit tough times.  Rather than offering land that could be divided up into farm-size units and claimed by hardy yeomen, the West presented vast areas of land, characterized by elevation, ruggedness, and aridity, that were not at all suited to farming.  The long-range outcome was a vast domain of otherwise unwanted land that stayed in the ownership and under the management of the federal government.

The greatest share of that land is now the responsibility of the BLM.  Created by the merger of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service in 1946, the BLM was always obligated to shape its policy in response to the demands of American citizens.  More so than any other federal resource management agency, the BLM had to take into account and adapt its course to the preferences of elected officials and local residents whose livelihoods depended on the public lands.

In an extraordinary transformation that reminds us of the unpredictability of historical change, a remarkable number of Americans have developed an affection and appreciation for arid and semiarid lands.  Improbably enough, the western lands that “no one wanted” acquired admirers, devotees, and advocates.  By the end of the 20th century, it was not much of an exaggeration to say that there was not a single unloved square inch left in the terrain that Americans had once classified as “wastelands.” 

The growing appreciation for the beauty, biodiversity, and recreational attractions of public lands was emerging as a major political and cultural force, challenging the earlier, close ties between the BLM and local resource users. Americans from all over the nation directed their ambitions, hopes, worries, fears, and preferences at the BLM.  There was an unquestionable element of good news in this:  the ownership of the public lands by all the nation’s citizens was becoming more widely recognized and embraced.  But, by the very same measure, the enterprise of combining democracy with conservation had grown immeasurably more complicated.  In truth, responding to the concerns of American citizens had been a considerably easier task when there were dramatically fewer people in that mix and when the great majority of the people involved lived in proximity to BLM lands.

In recent years, a movement has sprung up to challenge the habit of separating the domain of the natural from the domain of the human.  The assumption that the preservation of natural landscapes meant quarantining them from human presence and use had been widespread in the movements that preceded current environmentalism.  And yet few, if any, American places ever existed in a pristine condition unaffected by human beings; in hunting, gathering, and farming, as well as in the strategic use of fire, Indian people had been present and active in every locale.  With the growing recognition of the inseparability of the “human” from the “natural,” the BLM turned out to be at the forefront of a big trend.  The mandate to manage working landscapes spared the agency the time and trouble of surrendering old and misleading notions of pristine nature sequestered from the contamination of human presence.  With individuals and groups following a wide range of ambitions and aspirations converging on the public lands, the BLM again found itself located at the intersection where democracy and conservation meet.

Among the many reasons to read the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the enabling act for the BLM, the most important one may be this:  a citizen who reads the opening section of the law will find a catalogue and inventory of every thought that has come to the minds of the American people when they have looked at nature and assessed its value. 

If you are willing, invest a moment in empathy.  Review even a partial list of what people want from the public lands—grass for livestock grazing, game to hunt, lands for wind and solar energy production, precious minerals to mine, natural gas to drill for, places to hike and camp, trails for off-road vehicles, habitats for wildlife, refuges for wild horses, streams and rivers for game fish, archaeological sites to study.  Then imagine yourself trying to negotiate with the people pursuing these various goals, all of them legitimate and only a few of them completely compatible.  It would certainly be understandable if you had a moment of envying the powers once exercised by kings, queens, and colonial governors on behalf of the conservation of resources.

In the great American experiment of testing the compatibility between democracy and conservation, the BLM is unmistakably the crucible.  Its extraordinary landholdings are the places where the great question we inherit from the past undergoes its most revealing tests and trials. 

Is democracy compatible with conservation?

If you’re interested in the answer (and what good citizen wouldn’t be?), ask a BLM employee to tell you what he or she did at work today.


Patty Limerick, a distinguished American historian, is the faculty director of the University of Colorado's Center of the American West.  She has had the opportunity to participate in many memorable conversations with BLM staff and is currently writing a collection of essays on the Department of the Interior.