A number of requirements — legislative, administrative and public demands — impose competing priorities on federal land managers. They develop in part because of two competing views of how to best manage the environment. The first view is a desire to manage nature and natural resources to promote human flourishing and human progress. The second view sees the natural environment as intrinsically valuable and worthy of protection no matter the impact of management on human well-being. The first view is often labeled conservation, or a “people first” mindset. The second view is often labeled preservation, or “nature first.”
Those diverging world views are two ends of a spectrum and most people would probably land somewhere in between them. But the fact that these extremes are strongly advocated for often forces land managers to choose between the demands of one view or the other.
In the U.S. Forest Service, the early conservationist attitudes toward public land management corresponded to those of the agency’s first leader, Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot served as the first chief of the Forest Service, from 1905-10, and infused the agency with his utilitarian and “people first” view of natural resource management. One of Pinchot’s most recognizable quotes captured his attitude: “Conservation means the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.”
Federal legislation at the time appeared similarly focused. For example, section 475 of the law that governs national forests, titled the “purposes for which national forests may be established and administered,” encouraged the anthropocentric and utilitarian concept that federal lands should be protected to ensure a continuous supply of natural resources as a means of promoting economic growth and human betterment. To that end, this law states that the forests should be protected, but makes clear that they are protected for the purpose of meeting human needs: “No national forest [federal lands] shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States.”
Since that time, federal agencies have moved away from that utilitarian mindset and have been increasingly influenced by the preservationist, or “nature first,” view. Much of this movement can be traced back to early environmentalists, like John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club. Muir shunned the notion that the natural environment existed to benefit humanity and instead treated public land management as a type of quasi-religious crusade. Muir viewed nature as intrinsically valuable and fought to have it preserved in as close to an untouched-by-human-hands form as possible.
This preservationist tone has had a growing influence on federal policy since Muir’s time, and it now often takes a leading role. But there is still a strong and dynamic tension between “human first” and “nature first” attitudes in public land management. Often that tension, paired with stakeholder pressures and litigation threats, can compel federal land managers to limit proposed or ongoing activities, effectively playing it safe and moving management toward a de facto preservationist end. That is because, when conflicts arise over appropriate uses, competing priorities can make it costly and difficult for federal land managers to settle on an approach that can deal with various conflicts and issues. As result, managers often choose to just hold off on making any decisions.
Federal land managers recognize how these competing interests can effectively stall management of national lands and preclude any but the most basic wilderness recreation uses. They refer to this reality as their “process predicament.”[*] These competing world views have been represented in laws such as the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act, the Endangered Species Act, and many other laws and administrative rules. Conservation-focused legislation requires federal managers to allow natural resources — timber, water, wildlife, minerals — on or under federal lands to be used, or extracted, as a means of meeting basic human needs. Preservation-focused legislation, however, often forbids that same resource use and extraction, focusing instead on protecting natural areas in an allegedly pristine state. Handling these conflicting directives only increases the process predicament for federal land managers, as attempting to resolve these conflicts requires maneuvering through and around significant procedural hurdles.
[*] “The Process Predicament: How Statutory, Regulatory, and Administrative Factors Affect National Forest Management” (U.S. Forest Service, June 2002), https://perma.cc/6S6A-V57C. This study describes the process predicament: “Too often, the Forest Service is so busy meeting procedural requirements, such as preparing voluminous plans, studies, and associated documentation, that it has trouble fulfilling its historic mission: to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”