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America's Public Lands

From Yellowstone to Smokey Bear and Beyond

Randall K. Wilson

How is it that the United States—the country that cherishes the ideal of private property more than any other in the world—has chosen to set aside nearly one-third of its territory as public lands? Considering this intriguing question, Randall K. Wilson traces the often-forgotten ideas of nature that have shaped the evolution of America’s public land system. The result is a fresh and probing account of the most pressing policy and management challenges facing national parks, forests, rangelands, and wildlife refuges today.

The author explores the dramatic story of the origins of the public domain, including the century-long push toward privatization and the subsequent emergence of a national conservation ideal. Arguing that we cannot fully understand one type of public land without understanding its relation to the rest of the system, he provides in-depth accounts of the different types of public lands. Including chapters on national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management lands, and wilderness areas, Wilson examines key turning points and major policy debates for each land type. He considers questions of bison and elk management and recent disputes over fire policy, roadless areas, mining claims, and grazing fees. This comprehensive overview offers a chance to rethink our relationship with America’s public lands, including what it says about the way we relate to, and value, nature in the United States.
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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Pages: 334Size: 6 1/2 x 9 1/2
978-1-4422-0797-4 • Hardback • April 2014 • $59.00 • (£39.95)
978-1-4422-0798-1 • Paperback • February 2016 • $34.00 • (£23.95)
978-1-4422-0799-8 • eBook • April 2014 • $32.00 • (£22.95)
Randall K. Wilsonholds the Thompson Chair of Environmental Studies at Gettysburg College.
Introduction: Why Public Lands?
Part I: Origins of the Public Domain
Chapter 1: Building the National Commons
Chapter 2: Disposing of the Public Domain: From Commons to Commodity
Chapter 3: A Public Land System Emerges
Part II: America's Public Land System
Chapter 4: National Parks
Chapter 5: National Forests
Chapter 6: National Wildlife Refuges
Chapter 7: Bureau of Land Management Lands
Chapter 8: National Wilderness Preservation System: Wild and Scenic Rivers and National Scenic Trails
Chapter 9: Parting Thoughts
Appendix A: Major U.S. Public Land Laws and Other Key Turning Points
Appendix B: Units within the National Park System
This book is a significant addition to the literature on US federal lands. Wilson organized the text around land management agencies rather than temporal order of land preservation action, taking a fresh look at differences in agency missions and public perceptions. The book works on multiple levels, blending individuals and landscapes. Part 1, in three chapters, reviews the history of the disposition of lands in the country. The cycle of land distribution and subsequent conservation actions is succinctly but richly presented. Present and future land use opportunities and challenges clearly have their origins in past decisions. Part 2, in six chapters, presents the national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, and the National Wilderness Preservation System (of rivers and trails). The chapter on the BLM is an exceptional contribution to the public lands literature. A final chapter synthesizes the author's perspective on federal public lands. Extremely well researched, this is a treasure trove of facts and explanations that distills a huge literature of historical, scholarly, and popular origins. It is destined to be a highly cited classic in land management. Summing Up: Essential. All students, researchers/faculty, professionals/practitioners, and general readers.

Essential reading for those interested in how Americans value nature and how they use their collectively owned lands.
Forest History Today

Wilson offers a well-written, thoughtful, and ambitious synthesis of the story of America’s public lands that (literally!) covers a great deal of ground clearly and concisely. In addition to providing a historical narrative of how the nation’s public lands system came together, Wilson contextualizes the story more broadly, seeing how the various components of the system (the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, etc.) reflect different notions of nature and economic development. He also offers a framework for examining current issues that involve public land policies and uses. Wilson’s personal enthusiasm for America’s public lands runs clearly throughout the book and his hope is that this overview will add to greater public and scholarly awareness of the system and the settings it protects. . . .The book should be required reading for North American historical geographers, historians of the American West and public lands, employees in a wide assortment of public agencies, and for anyone interested in why one-third of the United States looks the way it does.
Journal of Historical Geography

America’s Public Lands is a wonderful introductory book for those interested in federal land management practice and law. It contains enough detailed analysis of contemporary issues to engage those familiar with the subject while it is broad enough to give nascent readers to the field a fine single volume that encapsulates much of what has been argued on the subject over the last several decades.The book’s most interesting premise is that public lands need to be addressed as one system and not a collection of fiefdoms divided by bureaucratic borders. Wilson’s unifying concept is being advocated at the highest levels in Washington, D.C., and it was voiced by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in his first policy speech on the national forests in Seattle in 2009.
The American Historian

Effective. . . . Admirable. . . . By placing these public lands institutions in tension with one another, Wilson does something more than provide an up-to-date history and mission analysis of the agencies that oversee public lands; America’s Public Lands, perhaps for the first time, combines these histories and contemporary contestations in a single text, situating each of the institutions within a larger ideology, discourse, and practice of conservation and intentional management. . . . Wilson envelops these conceptualizations into lived realities and practices, ultimately demonstrating how ideas turn into institutions that are dynamic, but also deeply rooted in their pasts. . . . The first text in nearly two decades . . . to treat the public land system as a coherent whole, part of a larger ideological and managerial project. In this regard, the text has no contemporaries, as it provides a single academic resource that revels in these lands’ existence, but does so in a way that does not avoid the paradoxes, incongruities, struggles, and inequalities that help formulate their contemporary management. . . . Wilson’s book offers readers a chance to reconsider our complex, multifaceted, and often ironic relationships with public lands in the United States. . . . Appropriate for a wide variety of academic and popular audiences. While scholars will find usefulness in having the text as an up-to-date reference point, it will provide a substantial contribution to undergraduate and postgraduate courses as well. Widely diverse courses in public land management, environmental planning, environmental policy, environmental politics, environmental history, environmental law, environmental social studies, wilderness, and the environmental humanities will find this text to be valuable. Wilson’s book neatly and creatively packs a great deal of information and analyses into just over 300 pages.
Society & Natural Resources

Randall Wilson’s America’s Public Lands provides a useful introduction to the history and politics of the vast array of federal land programs. . . .Wilson has fashioned a readable, well-informed volume that builds on existing scholarship (including his own research on collaborative management) to construct a framework for understanding the essentially contested nature of our public lands as the setting for both resource exploitation and natural preservation. . . .The book is well designed as an introductory text for courses on federal land policy or western environmental history. It offers a clear and inviting narrative, an extensive bibliography to guide student research, and a sophisticated analytical blend of institutional politics and cultural change. . . .Wilson’s comprehensive view offers much to engage experts as well, showing the political and ideological underpinnings of land issues that span all these agencies.
Environmental History

America's Public Lands: From Yellowstone to Smokey Bear and Beyond considers how it's come to be that a nation that cherishes the ideal of private property has methodically set aside nearly a third of its territory as public lands, and provides a history of the making of America's public land system. Chapters do more than chart the usual evolution of parklands and policies: they consider the origins of the idea of public domain and access, considering forces towards privatization and conservation and how they interacted to produce the parklands system we have today. Chapters cover national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas and provide discussions surrounding policy debates and establishment processes for many of country's top wildlife areas, making this a far more wide-ranging survey than the usual parklands history approach, and a highly recommended pick for any who would understand the bigger picture involved in parklands creation, history, and management.
Midwest Book Review

Wilson provides a complete history, from colonial times, of what it took to build the national commons.... He tells a compelling and disturbing story of hunger, greed, and hubris in the history of land acquisition in the United States and in the disposition of these lands into private hands.
Public Administration Review

Unprecedented in scope and depth, this important work traces the American public lands system to its origins and in the process challenges the ways we think about our vast heritage. Meticulously researched and artfully written, the book is essential reading for anyone interested in the 650 million acres of federally managed lands in the United States.
Howard R. Ernst, United States Naval Academy

At long last! A single-volume history of America’s public lands that celebrates the miracle of their existence but never shies away from the messy contradictions, conflicts, and injustice that make up their history. This is the plain-language, people's political ecology of our treasured landscapes.
Paul Robbins, University of Wisconsin–Madison

This book is a treasure for those looking for a thoughtful and efficient introduction to the history of our nation's public lands. Wilson successfully captures the drama of this still-unfolding story and challenges us to engage with the incredible legacy that public lands represent as well as the innate difficulties that come along with managing and protecting these areas.
Neil Kornze

Answers the question of how it is that the United States—the country that cherishes the ideal of private property more than any other country in the world—can also be the first to set aside nearly one-third of its land area as public lands

Offers the first account in decades of American public lands as a coherent system, including their common origin, hundred-year national effort to sell them off, and their role in the emergence of the American conservation movement

Individual chapters on national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, BLM lands, and wilderness areas explore the evolution, key turning points and major policy challenges facing resource managers today

Case studies underscore current policy debates and emerging trends in public land management, including the promise of community-based and collaborative conservation initiatives to resolve some of the most pressing issues facing resource managers today

An excellent resource for students of American environmental policy, environmental history, and land conservation in the United States

• Winner, CHOICE Outstanding Academic Titles (2014)
• Winner, J. B. Jackson Prize of the AAG (2014)