Should it be legal to exploit natural resources on public lands?

Under the argument that public lands are part of the commons, a resource for all, the federal government routinely leases rights to natural resources to private firms that want to graze livestock, drill for oil and gas, mine, log, and engage in other activities on public lands. Likewise, bodies of water are targets for municipalities, agriculture, and other entities that want to use them as a steady supply for drinking, irrigation, and other needs. Additionally, private individuals can receive permits and leases to exploit natural resources as well — hunting and fishing, for example, are legal on a variety of public lands across the country, and sometimes actively encouraged to manage overpopulation.

But is it really entirely fair to use public lands this way? It’s a complicated question, and one that doesn’t really have a strict binary answer — it’s not necessarily fair to grant as much leeway as we do on public lands, but conversely, refusing to allow people to engage in any activities involving natural resources isn’t fair either, and could actually be counterproductive for ecological health. Hunters who keep deer populations down ensure that other species can thrive. Native peoples who fish according to traditional practices preserve their heritage. Selective logging can reduce the risk of forest fires.

The notion of a commons is an ancient and accepted practice across the Western world that appears in various iterations, all of which revolve around the notions that there are some resources that are shared, rather than being in private ownership. The colonisation of North America resulted in the import of this model, pushing out indigenous land use practices. Management of these resources must clearly provide a net public good, whether it be environmental, social, or something else entirely. On federal and state parks in particular, there’s a belief that these resources should be available to enjoy for all, now and into the future — that people should be able to walk along forest paths, climb mountains, swim in lakes, watch wildlife.

Uses of public resources, however, are not necessarily equal. Throughout the modern history of the United States, the colonial government has allocated resources to the highest bidders, even if their uses conflict with the theoretical goal of preserving resources. Fracking and mineral exploration on public land create environmental damage and make such lands less pleasant to visit. Livestock grazing creates environmental and human hazards, whether it’s erosion from hooves trampling the banks of a creek or stampeding livestock threatening visitors — or ranchers treating public land like their own private fiefdom and driving people off.

Conflicts also exist between people who want to use ATVs and other motor vehicles and people who prefer quiet. Hunters and those who would rather that people not hunt, or fish. Logging companies that want to exploit timber of varying quality and people who like trees. Officials concerned with environmental health and people who don’t necessarily realise that freezing all human activity can actually be detrimental — sound timber management, for example, helps increase forest health. These conflicts are incredibly difficult to balance.

The agencies responsible for making decisions like these are open to public comment, and members of the public can attend meetings, provide written comments, and lobby with their legislators to discuss policy and advocate for the resources they care about. People don’t always take advantage of this, though, and consequently they may be startled when natural resource exploitation happens near them, unaware that they could have been more engaged with the decisionmaking process. (Incidentally, regulations.gov maintains a list of rules and policies currently under discussion at government agencies, allowing people to read through their documentation and make comments on them — something we can thank the Obama Administration for, as it’s heavily promoted the use of technology to promote transparent government communications.)

Fees for leases, licenses, and other permissions go to the federal government, and are theoretically plowed back into activities surrounding the maintenance and protection of natural resources. In this sense, citizens receive an individual ‘cut’ of these proceedings…but not exactly. Alaska is the only place funds from oil and gas leasing are actually directly paid back to the residents who live with the consequences of these activities.

Should we be placing limits on the types of activities we permit on public land, barring activities like fracking and grazing altogether on the grounds of the environmental damage they cause while allowing people to take out individual hunting or fishing licenses because hunting is both a legitimate form of recreation (and subsistence, for some) and a net environmental good when practiced sustainably? How do we balance these conflicts effectively, especially when it comes to destructive practices that will clearly leave harmful legacies for future generations?

I don’t much like the thought of people picking through environmental disaster areas in 100 years because the government played fast and loose with leasing, especially given some of the corruption scandals exposed in agencies responsible for making decisions about who can lease and where. At the same time, though, I don’t think it’s acceptable to unilaterally refuse to allow people to do anything other than walk around enjoying nature – because while that’s a lovely activity and one I engage in regularly, it’s not necessarily the only entirely legitimate use of public lands.

One thing is definitely clear: With environmentally harmful practices increasing, we need to sit down and have a serious conversation about oil and gas exploration and mining in particular, because I see no reason why these should be allowed on public lands. Private firms make a fortune from both, paying a pittance in leasing fees to offset their earnings as they destroy the environment and the quality of public lands, and that’s unacceptable.

Image: Fracking, Martin Thomas, Flickr