Depletion and Conservation of Natural Resources - The Battle Over Public Lands
acres wildlife nature grazing
The GAO reported in 2001 that the federal government managed just over 680 million acres or about 29 percent of the nation's total land surface. Of these lands, 96 percent are managed by four agencies—the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service. Most public lands are located in western states.
In much of the West ranchers have petitioned Congress to loosen restrictions on grazing on thousands of acres of federally owned ranch land. Environmental groups strongly oppose the proposal, claiming that grazing imperils land conservation, wildlife, and recreation. Grazing, they charge, is especially destructive to stream banks and sensitive wildlife habitat. Such concern for the soil and wildlife also lies at the heart of the dispute between oil companies and environmentalists over control of public lands such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
A Land Grab
Unfortunately, love of the land has led Americans and developers into isolated, undeveloped areas in record numbers, threatening to destroy the very beauty they enjoy. Increasingly, developers are trying to build in choice, remote locations, such as the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.
In Phoenix and Scottsdale, some government leaders are concerned that developers will transform the desert into a sea of asphalt. Residents have indicated a willingness to invest tax money to protect mountain preserves from encroaching development and have declared several mountain areas off limits to developers. The state of Arizona and those cities involved have undertaken to purchase as many as 700,000 acres of land with tax revenues with the purpose of doing nothing with it and simply allowing it to remain in a natural state.
In 1995 South Carolina's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management denied permission to the owners of 7,000 acres of Sandy Island to build a bridge connecting the island to the mainland. Although the owners claimed the bridge would be used to transport harvested timber from there to the mainland, opponents believed the bridge would, in fact, lead to the construction of homes, condominiums, and golf courses on the island.
In Texas, in an effort to balance development with wildlife preservation, the city of Austin invited the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group, to develop a plan to protect the environment while enabling building. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA; PL 93-205) allows such regional arrangements. The result is the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, a 70,000- to 75,000-acre preserve in the Texas Hill Country, home to a number of endangered species.
In 1997 the Nature Conservancy finalized one of its many negotiations to keep family ranches in environmentally sensitive areas of the country—especially the West—from being broken up. The organization purchased the Dugout Ranch in Utah, which consists of 5,167 acres of privately owned pastureland and 250,000 acres of grassland leased from the government for grazing, with $4.6 million donated by individuals, foundations, and corporations. The ranch was a favored setting for movies and commercials. The Nature Conservancy will maintain it as a working ranch, ecological preserve, and model for how cattle grazing and conservation—at odds throughout the West—can work hand in hand. As of 2003 the Nature Conservancy owned and managed about 15 million acres in the United States, in addition to assisting with conservation efforts around the world.
In May 2002 the North Carolina chapter of the Nature Conservancy purchased 38,000 acres of isolated woodlands and wetlands from a paper company for $24 million. The purchase is part of a massive 100,000-acre area owned by the organization that will supply protected habitat for black bears and other wildlife.