June 20, 1970
The White House
Dear Mr. President:
We submit with pride the report of the Public Land Law Review Commission with our recommendations for policy guidelines for the retention and management or disposition of Federal lands that equal one-third of the area of our Nation.
Although we represent diverse views and backgrounds, we were able to adjust our ideas, objectively consider the problems and achieve this general agreement. In a few instances, individual members have set forth their separate views. Because this is a consensus report, however, the absence of a member's separate views does not necessarily indicate that there is unanimity on the details.
The Commission's recommendations will support early implementation through Executive and legislative action to assure equitable treatment of our citizens and make the public land laws of the United States and their administration simpler, more effective, and, in accordance with the criterion of the policy objective set forth in the Commission's Organic Act, truly for the maximum benefit for the general public.
This apparently innocuous letter, signed by Representative Wayne Aspinall of Colorado and 18 members of his commission, led off a 342-page report that was rive years in the making and cost $7 million.
The public land mentioned is not merely a few tracts of forest and plain. It is 724 million acres—724 million acres of some of the purest, most beautiful and least-ransacked land on earth. This land is scattered throughout the country, but the largest concentrations are found, naturally, in the western states—one of the last relatively safe reservoirs of fresh air, clean water and nonmanhandled ecology. Three million big-game animals depend on this wild country, and 17,500 miles of fishing streams flow through it. Amazingly, most of the public has been unaware of this inheritance, and nobody has been doing much shouting about it. But the whispers have been loud enough to hear.
The Public Land Law Review Commission was created as part of a bargain with Representative Aspinall, chairman of the Interior Committee and a man who could never be mistaken for a friend of conservation, to let the Wilderness Bill go through. Some bargain. Aspinall's commission has—on the basis of little-publicized hearings and highly secretive deliberations about "the final disposition of public lands"—recommended accelerated exploitation and disposal of the lands. Before most of the heirs have even learned about the inheritance the will is being rewritten.
All six Senators attached to the commission came from development-hungry western states. Three of six House appointees and three of six lay members appointed by Lyndon Johnson also represented the West. The appointment of Aspinall as chairman was a little like letting a rabbit decide the disposition of a lettuce field.
Public ignorance about most of the public lands has remained carefully preserved. Everybody knows about our national parks, and Americans are just beginning to recognize the recreational and wilderness resource constituted by our national forests, but the national parks and forests comprise only 210 million acres of public land. Another 48.5 million acres are held by such scarcely ecology-minded agencies as the Bureau of Reclamation, the Corps of Engineers and the armed forces.
The remainder of this vast acreage that might be available or suitable for recreation is controlled by a nearly anonymous agency called the Bureau of Land Management. Historically, the bureau has permitted mining, lumber and stock interests to make incursions into the public lands almost at will. Short-range economic pressure has often prevented even the rudimentary conservation of sustained yield. Large acreage has been sold off cheaply to private buyers—in periodic auctions to neighboring ranchers, for example.