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New Book by Professor Char Miller Examines Controversies Surrounding Public Lands

Professor Char Miller at Joshua Tree National Park

Professor Char Miller at Joshua Tree National Park

Book cover for "Public Lands, Public Debates"

Char Miller examines both the historic struggle and contemporary debates over public lands in the United States in his new book, Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy (Oregon State University Press). “Americans have always fought over the public lands, about their physical existence, political purposes, economic benefits and environmental values,” says Miller.

Arguments over control of public lands continue to boil, especially in the West, emphasizing the book’s timeliness. Last March, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed legislation setting a 2014 deadline for the U.S. Government to hand over all public lands except national parks, congressionally designated wilderness lands, military installations and some Utah heritage sites. The land in dispute totals almost 30 million acres. In April, Arizona’s legislature passed a similar bill. Meanwhile, the Yurok Tribe has draft legislation attempting to place more than 1,200 acres of California’s Redwood National Park under the Tribe’s control.

Owned in common and funded through national tax receipts, national forests, monuments, parks and preserves are national in scope and significance, says Miller. “Their controversial histories demonstrate their vulnerability to shifting tides of public opinion, alterations in fiscal support and overlapping authorities for their management--including federal, state and local mandates, as well as tribal prerogatives and military claims.”

In the book’s 19 essays, Miller, who is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Studies at Pomona College, explores the history of conservation thinking and the development of the U.S. Forest Service as a gauge of the broader debates about public lands. He examines critical moments of public and private negotiations, shedding light on the particular and occasionally peculiar tensions that have shaped the administration of public lands in the United States.

Topics range from the emergence of the idea of conservation, to early legislation in the 1900s such as the Antiquities Act (1906), to a slate of new national regulations beginning in the 1960s with the Wilderness Act (1964) and Endangered Species Act (1973), to the much more recent understanding of global interconnectedness of nature and climate change.

“My goal was to write a book about public lands--our fascination and frustration with them--that was accessible to the public,” says Miller. “The importance of public lands to the urban quality of life is not always obvious but 60% of all water in the Western United States falls on Forest Service lands and rolls into metropolitan water districts like Los Angeles, Denver, El Paso, Seattle and Albuquerque. The centrality of the agency’s lands in the West is obvious only when you realize the scope of the environmental services those forests provide to urban and rural populations.”

Miller is the director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College, a senior fellow of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and a contributing writer for the Texas Observer. He has written and edited numerous books including Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, River Basins of the American West: A High Country News Reader and Water in the 21st Century West.