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
Before the American Revolution, the British prevented colonists' westward expansion near the Atlantic Coast via the Proclamation Line of 1763. After the Revolution, the young nation sought ways to offer new settlers the public land inherited from the new states. According to Sowards, this involved a host of scholars and a plethora of special interests and government agencies, which he highlights, but dispersal failed to be easy over time. The issue of land use is old but is as relevant as today’s news. Finding ways of conserving vast forests, mountains, wilderness, deserts, and waterways has bedeviled the nation in light of its economic and capitalistic impulses. In short, a vast number of government agencies and private organizations have attempted conservation but sometimes failed at the task. In competition with public interest, special interests often win but are sometimes thwarted in favor of the public. Recommended. Graduate students, faculty, and professionals.
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.
Because of both its wide breadth and short length, Making America’s Public lands will be useful to many readers. It will easily avail itself to anyone interested in public lands and both undergraduate and graduate classes to introduce the complicated history of the U.S. environment, readily bringing them to the table of the topic.
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.
6/5/22, University of Puget Sound: Adam Sowards and his book were featured in his alma mater’s alumni magazine.
9/15/22, Shepherd: Adam Sowards wrote about the best books for bringing the public into the public lands.
9/25/22, Los Angeles Times: Adam Sowards wrote about America’s troubled history as stewards of public lands.
11/17/22, Library Journal: This book was highlighted as an academic bestseller in environmental science.
3/24/2023, New Books Network Podcast: