In the United States, the federal government owns more than a quarter of the nation’s landscape—nearly 640 million acres; or more than a million square miles, which, if consolidated, would make it the tenth largest nation on earth. Primarily managed by four federal agencies—the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service--American public lands have been central to developing the American economy, state, and identity. The history of these lands intersects with critical components of the American past—namely nature, politics, and economics. From the beginning, the concept of “public” has been the subject of controversy, from visions of homesteaders realizing the ideal of the Jeffersonian republic to western ranchers who use the open range to promote a free enterprise system, to wilderness activists who see these lands as wild places, free from human encumbrance. Environmental historian Adam Sowards synthesizes public lands history from the beginning of the republic to recent controversies. Since public lands are located everywhere, including iconic national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, Americans at large have a stake in these lands. They are, after all, ours. In a real sense, this book is for those citizens who camp in the national forests, drive through the national parks, or admire distant wilderness landscapes. These readers will gain a greater appreciation for the long and complex history of the range of these places.
Adam M. Sowards is professor of history at the University of Idaho. He is the author of United States West Coast: An Environmental History (a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2008), The Environmental Justice: William O. Douglas and American Conservation, and An Open Pit Visible from the Moon: The Wilderness Act and the Fight to Protect Miners Ridge and the Public Interest (winner of the Western History Association's Hal K. Rothman Book Prize for 2021).
Introduction: Huckleberries around the Table
Chapter 1 Gathering
Chapter 2 Forming
Chapter 3 Managing
Chapter 4 Balancing
Chapter 5 Polarizing
Conclusion: The Promise of the Public’s Land
A Note on Sources
America’s public lands began in paradoxes that each generation has had to renegotiate. Adam Sowards deftly traces this complex narrative and shows the pressure points most vital today. Thoughtful, judicious, graceful, accessible – Making America’s Public Lands is a great place to begin any inquiry into the curious creation of a public estate in a country committed to private property.
With care and discernment, historian Adam Sowards listens to the cacophonous stories of these remarkable landscapes, amplifying their legacies and lessons for all those with a stake in "the public’s land."
This book is a must-read for every aspiring land manager and every American who values their public lands. Adam Sowards takes readers on a well-written and engaging journey through the history of these lands, highlighting the sometimes glorious and sometimes complicated nature of their evolution. His depiction of them as places around which we all physically, emotionally, and spiritually gather is essential for moving us beyond thinking of our own individual relationship to these lands and considering our relationship to others and to our nation through them. Adam’s poignant and timely work reminds us how precious our public lands are and how delicate an endeavor preserving them has been and continues to be.
4/19/22, National Archives Museum: Adam Sowards engaged in a timely book talk.
5/19/22, Lawyers, Guns & Money Podcast: Adams Sowards was interviewed about the book.