The federal lands constitute a public asset of astonishing extent. They include some 80 million acres in national parks and monuments; 90 million acres in national wildlife refuges; 192 million acres in national forests and grasslands; 270 million acres of lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management; and another 41 million acres in military reservations and other lesser categories.
In total, 673 million acres are held in common. That is nearly one-third of the total land area of all fifty states, some 2.5 acres of federal land for every fortunate citizen in the country.
If the federal lands were concentrated in the center of the country, they would cover almost exactly and entirely the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
Few nations on the planet enjoy such an immense landscape as common property. Six hundred and seventy three million acres amounts to 1.05 million square miles. If you wanted that much land in western Europe, you would have to buy Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, England, Ireland, and about a fourth of Poland.
The federal lands contained, and have yielded an immense treasure of natural resources: arable land, minerals, water, timber, range forage, hydrocarbon energy, and water power.
For 200 years the lands have been used almost exclusively to generate private wealth from these resources. That was by conscious intent, and it was fully in accord with the U.S. Constitution's emphasis on individual liberty and opportunity. The Constitution sought to build a great nation by assuring private citizens the freedom to pursue their individual destinies, limited perhaps by their strengths and skills, but not by a tyrannical government, not even one claiming to represent "the people." The public good would flow from the prosperity of individual citizens, so a homestead of 160 acres was yours after 5 years of "proving up," mining claims were free for the staking, a timber sale could be arranged to supply a small local sawmill at a guaranteed profit, and if you had "base property" you could run your cows on federal lands for a pittance. To build and develop a great nation, we chose to subsidize its citizens with federal lands and resources. Any Native American will confirm the success of the process.
In the early 19th century a peculiar citizen arrived on the scene, a corporate citizen, and in 1886 the institution of the US corporation was granted legal citizenship, including full protection of its civil rights by the Constitution. This disembodied, abstract citizen had two insurmountable advantages over citizens with blood and bones: it could accumulate economic resources (and hence political resources) without limit, and it lived in perpetuity. Exploiting those advantages, American corporations a century later--timber, mining, energy, and agribusiness corporations--have displaced almost completely the homesteaders, prospectors, "gyppo" loggers, and family ranchers as beneficiaries of the federal lands subsidies.
The genius of corporate enterprise -- mass production and its necessary corrollary, the mass marketing stimulation of high mass consumption -- transformed the American economic system as well, forcing it into a mode of overshoot. It has driven us to "hyperconsumption" to such excesses that personal and public health, among other things, are sacrificed to corporate bottom lines. Obesity and diabetes are serious "lifestyle diseases," but MacDonald's sells hamburgers and Eli Lilly sells insulin, both prospering as never before -- while the subsidized production of red meat from the federal lands continues. Global warming is scarcely a public benefit, but coal, oil, and gas corporations prosper as never before, too -- while the subsidized production of energy resources continues.
As a matter of public policy, and even though it is counterproductive, the flow of federal lands commodities continues because corporate enterprise, by the end of the 20th century, had transformed American politics, too. Today accounting for nearly 3/4 of all campaign financing, corporate enterprise has essentially bought the structure of federal governance, and the resource corporations lobby for their subsidies with vigor, unceasing vigilance, and notable success.
The book suggests the time has come to begin winding down the production of federal lands commodities, to end the grazing, logging, mining, drilling, and water development, and to favor the social and environmental services the lands can contribute instead. No longer simply a source of private (which is to say corporate) wealth, the lands could serve as a focal point for a renewed sense of community in the U.S., for a rejuvenated public life, for the construction of a vigorous, meaningful democracy.