Public Lands - An East Coast Point of View

It’s now the second day of the excursion and our hunter has yet to set eyes on his quarry, a black bear in the woods of Mississippi. The invite for the hunt came from the Governor of the state himself, Andrew H Longino, who facing re-election had good reason to please our hunter. Other members of the party had already encountered bears during the trip in November of 1902, but unfortunately no such luck for our sportsman. Suddenly there is a shout summoning him to a nearby location. A ghastly situation emerges as he approaches— a severely wounded bear is tied to a tree, surrounded by fellow hunters. Wounded dogs, one of which had been killed by the bear during the struggle, are strewn about. The men are calling for him to shoot the bear, but he refuses to raise his rifle. This is not the hunt he envisioned, nor is it conduct befitting of a sportsman. After his refusal, the surrounding men kill the bear, and haul it off to camp for processing. The event was soon recounted in a political cartoon publicized nationwide, and later became immortalized in the form of a children’s toy, the “Teddy Bear.”  Our hunter, President Theodore Roosevelt, would go on to be known as the “Conservationist President.” 

Federal Public Lands are currently a hot topic across various social media platforms, and chances are you’ve seen at least one or two rallying cries to, “save our public lands” strewn about your newsfeed. I have taken an interest in the discussion due to my personal affinity for all things outdoors, and would like to provide a brief background for anyone who is unfamiliar with the history and/or current situation, as well as some perspective from an East Coast sportsman. Anyone who enjoys hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, biking, bird watching, stargazing, and just about any other outdoor activity has a vested interest in this topic. All of these activities are currently accessible due to the structure of our public lands system. This subject is all too relevant today as the world begins to focus on preserving the exhaustible natural resources our planet holds.

First, let’s establish a small timeline. Lewis and Clark’s historic journey and discovery into the American West began in 1804 and lasted until 1806. The United State’s westward expansion moved forward from there, quickly enveloping much of the continent and its native peoples. Settlers followed soon after Lewis and Clark; creating the Oregon Trail in 1811, chasing riches during the Gold Rush in 1848, and improving land under the Homestead Act beginning in 1862. These events led to the complete exploration of the West and new states added to the Union. The rapid expansion came at a price, not only to the natural resources of the land, but also to the Native Americans who called it home. Within 100 short years of Lewis and Clark’s journey, Presidents and other government officials had the foresight to begin establishing protected land that required the management of resources. The rapid impact we had on the land with the technology of the times – axes, flintlock rifles, and horse drawn wagons – must have been alarming to stimulate such a powerful response from our policy makers. Imagine what another two hundred years of technological advancement and population growth would have done to this landscape without the conservation movement.  

The story of public lands began in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed Yellowstone National Park into law, creating the world’s first national park. This was during a time of great expansion for our country; and the foresight to protect these lands from future development was unprecedented. The goal of the park was to create an area “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Two decades later, the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 passed, allowing the president to designate land in the public domain as forest reserves. Since then, 59 National Parks have been founded. Hundreds of millions of acres have been set aside for the benefit and enjoyment of people as well as preserving habitat for native flora and fauna.  

The process to preserve public lands was arduous, and at the time met with significant resistance from lawmakers and private sector entities. One of the first steps taken was to create the United States Forest Service (USFS) in 1905, whose mission was to protect and sustain our forestry resources. Gifford Pinchot headed the Forest Service and worked alongside Roosevelt to establish the beginnings of the Public Land System we see today. Roosevelt moved the USFS from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture, providing the USFS with more influence over forest reserves. 

1906 brought the signing of the Antiquities Act, allowing Roosevelt and future presidents to "declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific interest to be National Monuments." He later used the act to declare the Grand Canyon a National Monument after Congress denied approval to designate the area as a national park. Opponents cried afoul and claimed the federal government was overreaching and stripping states of their rights to manage the lands and natural resources within. Other complaints revolved around the difficulty people faced when attempting to use the lands, as regulations could be quite complicated under federal management. Roosevelt argued the federal government was the only entity with enough resources to manage the lands, and that local governments and states could not. The debate came to a head in 1907 when political leaders in the West convinced Congress to alter the 1891 Forest Reserve Act. An amendment was attached to the Agriculture Appropriations Act of 1907 preventing the creation and/or expansion of forest reserves in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming. Roosevelt had no choice but to sign the bill due to political pressure. The deadline to sign was March 4, 1907. To circumvent restrictions the amendment imposed on public land, Roosevelt worked with Pinchot leading up to the deadline to create 21 new reserves and enlarge 11 existing. This ensured the reserves would be pre-existing when the deadline arrived. This infuriated supporters of the amendment. This occasion is now referred to as the “Midnight Forests,” and stories persist of Roosevelt and company on hands and knees drawing large boundaries around would be forest reserves. Roosevelt was not one to mince words or shy away from angering his opponents. Harold Steen, a Forest Service historian, quoted Roosevelt as saying the opposition “turned handsprings in their wrath over the setting aside of these midnight reserves.” I like to imagine a gleeful Roosevelt pouring over maps with Pinchot, marking reserve boundaries with complete disregard for western politicians. By the end of his presidency he was able to set aside 230 million acres of public lands. This included 150 national forests, 51 bird refuges, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments.

The western half of our country was the primary beneficiary of the conservation movement. Much of the eastern seaboard and interior was already settled, making public ownership impossible for most of the area (the map at the bottom of this article from illustrates this point). Any outdoorsmen who have spent time in the outdoors east of the Mississippi River knows how complicated land use can be. Either large corporations or private families own nearly all land outside of the parks system. While many states in the eastern US provide hunting opportunities on public land, the total available acreage pales in comparison to the West. Many Eastern hunters, myself included, hunt on land that is leased from either a corporation or private owner. My experience on leased land has been mostly agreeable, however; there are obvious downsides and risks associated with the system. Annual fees are the most obvious con of leased land, but are required to access and utilize the land. These fees can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on location, species variety, quantity and quality of species, amenities present, and just about any other factor you can imagine that drives up property value. Another downside is timber companies own much of the land available to be leased in the Southeast. The properties are typically large Pine plantations mixed with hardwood swamps and your occasional Oak stand. Older Pine stands are harvested according to company procedures I won’t pretend to understand. As a leasee you always run the risk of your property being next on the harvest list. I have not personally experienced this misfortune but many a camp, tree stand, and food plot have been compromised through this process. I can’t speak for all timber companies, but the one I lease with seems to have a vested interest in not only the timber, but the land itself as well. 

Leasing land does have the benefit of knowing you have a “reserved” hunting location that, outside of poachers, will not be sullied by other hunters. In most areas you can also shape the environment of the lease to your advantage, whether it be by clearing shooting lanes, plating food crops and/or setting out feeders (state regulations apply here), adding gates, or improving roads to name a few. A club with a good set of rules and respectful members can make for a great season and family environment. However, there is a catch to the personal feeling of ownership one can often slip into, and that is the fact that you do not own the land and most likely never will. I believe this is where our brethren in the West have the advantage over us Eastern hunters. Sure they don’t have sole access rights to the vast public lands of the West, but they are welcomed and encouraged to partake in whatever legal activities they see fit alongside their fellow outdoor enthusiasts. These lands were set aside for the enjoyment of all, current and future generations, with the intention that future lawmakers would not have the ability to remove these rights without significant resistance. I’m not going to pretend I live in constant fear that the lease I hunt will be swept from under my feet at any moment, but it is a possibility and certainly not unprecedented. Many hunters have found themselves out of a lease after a simple disagreement with the lease manager or landowner. Then it’s either hunt the [often] limited public land options, or try to find another lease and start the whole process over. Unfortunately for our Western hunters, this could become their reality in the future; only the culprit will be the divestiture of federal public lands to states and possibly corporate entities. 

 -Kevin Johansen, Fall Obsession Field Staff

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight; we have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future!

 -Theodore Roosevelt May 13, 1908: “Conservation as a National Duty”

Continental US Federal Lands Map

Samuel Thrash