There are two overlapping fields of environmental policy, sludge and romance. Most Americans elect to live in large metro areas, places where controlling sludge is essential. They pay little heed to the management of our federal and state romance lands; wildlife habitat, parks, wilderness, and range. The majority prefers Manhattan, NY (population 1.6 million) to Manhattan, MT (population 16 hundred).
However romance lands have magnetic qualities for some people. And technology makes it increasingly easy for them to vote with their feet. Places in the West with Bozeman's complementary qualities; civility, safety, and culture are especially attractive. We find a sophisticated urban culture and economy nested in a bucolic setting, much of it managed by federal and state governmental agencies. The federal lands in western states, nearly half the total, face serious threats and growing management problems.
Outside of Utah, the huge majority of Western citizens prefer federal ownership to transferring federal lands to the states. If transferred to states, people fear this land would ultimately be sold to commercial interests. The alternative of deeding some of it, wildlife refuges for example, to public fiduciary trusts will become an attractive option when government agencies lack funds for proper management, education, and research.
The Progressive Era created a paradigm for managing government lands: Specify the borders, create a bureaucracy to discover and manage by scientific principles, then fund operations with discretionary appropriations. The creators deemed this system "Scientific Management". This is still the model for lands under federal ownership.
However circumstances change. Absent reform this model is destined to fail--and probably on multiple dimensions. The scientific management, bureaucratic/political paradigm is endangered. And not mainly by naive efforts to transfer ownership to states or commercial interests. The looming threats involve funding.
Whitney Tilt is a friend and a professional conservationist. He is on the board of Future West and Gallatin Valley Land Trust. (The later organization holds the conservation easement on our ranch.) Whitney recently wrote a column in our local paper, "What is public land worth without management?"
He begins with this true observation: "Montana is graced with a bounty of public lands providing unrivaled opportunities to hunt, fish and recreate on thousands of acres". Nine paragraphs later he notes: "...absent adequate staffing and ongoing funding benefits diminish." Whitney concludes by encouraging citizens to pressure Congress for increased and sustained support.
The headlines in an earlier article in the same paper states, "Federal wildlife refuges reorganizing because of staff, program cuts". Scores of articles with an identical theme lead to one conclusion, the Progressive Era funding paradigm confronts a simple reality: government lands are managed by political calculus. Fortunately for those who value romance lands, an alternative paradigm awaits appreciation and acceptance.
Governments face ever-tighter budgets constraints. The most serious come from entitlement and retirement expenses at the federal, state and local levels. As these political promises come due, the phrase, “the agency cooperates with partners” will be key to the future of America’s parks and wildlands. We will see a shift to non-governmental funding and management.
When John Stoddard wrote about Yellowstone Park in the 1890s he believed the U. S. Army was the appropriate caretaker. He wrote, “No one who has visited the National Park ever doubts the necessity of having soldiers there....” He was probably correct at that time. Then, in 1916 the Progressives created the Park Service and that experiment has generally worked well. However, as the political economy environment changes, the land management agencies must adapt. Some will partner with friendly organizations in order to honor their missions and mandates. It's happening here, for example the new Yellowstone Forever foundation.
Yellowstone Forever was created in 2016 by merging the Yellowstone Park Foundation and the Yellowstone Institute. "With the launch of the nonprofit Yellowstone Forever, we are building a new model of partnership with the National Park Service, one that will engage more visitors and future stewards than ever before. The opportunities that Yellowstone Forever provides—to experience, connect, and contribute—are the first steps in a lifelong journey for people who want to preserve the park for generations to come." It may preview a new management paradigm for our romance lands.
A key to success is insulating our romance lands from political pressures and finding new sources of revenue. Citizens, foundations and corporations will supplement or replace federal funding. This implies increased cooperation with nongovernmental organizations.
Americans excel at creating such organizations through a variety of foundation and fiduciary trust arrangements. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1840:
“In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded”.
Our national parks and wildlife refuges are unlikely to soon become legally independent fiduciary trusts like George Washington’s Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Both are a private, nonprofit 501(c)3 corporations. They don't receive government funding for preservation, management, and education. However they are models for emulation as government funding for our romance lands gravitates downward.
The political environment naturally generates intractable costs that in the long run trump ecology. These include interest on government debts, retirement promises, entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, and depreciating infrastructure including bridges, roads, and water systems.
This competition for funding land management is predictable and unavoidable. However the values generated by our romance lands need not be lost. Yellowstone Forever is one of many alternatives to the Progressive Era paradigm for managing these lands. Environmental entrepreneurs will create and modify others. Some will have close intellectual and organizational links to Bozeman. I suggest we monitor, cheer, and contribute to their progress.