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Fighting Over Our Common Heritage: Public Lands in the West

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Wallace Stegner described our national parks as America’s “best idea … absolutely American, absolutely democratic.” 

But our parks are just a small part of the nation’s public lands, which also include national monuments, national forests, wildernesses, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and wild and scenic rivers.  The federal government owns almost a quarter of the United States and almost twice that much of the West, peaking at an astounding 84.9 percent of Nevada.  Since the founding of the Republic, Americans have argued over the best uses and management of the federal public lands—even disagreeing whether the federal government should continue to own them.  These debates have grown more intense under the Trump Administration.

Many of the conflicts focus on the types and intensity of uses to which federal lands should be put.  Should wildlife refuges be open for petroleum development?  Should national parks allow hunting, snowmobiles, and other off-road vehicles?  In other cases, private landowners complain about spillovers from neighboring public lands.  Ranchers in the West, for example, long have complained about federal protection of wolves and wild horses.  These public land debates can be heated and even deadly.  In 2016, armed militants occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to protest federal ownership; the occupation ultimately led to the shooting death of one of the militants.

We will begin at Stanford with several classes on the history and politics of the federal public lands, as well as an evaluation of the competing visions for their use.  We then will travel to Utah to visit key public lands, meet with government officials and stakeholders on all sides of the issues, and study conflicts first hand.  Utah is the perfect state for this intensive field experience.  Outside of Nevada, Utah has the largest percentage of federal public lands (64.9%).  It is home to five magnificent national parks.  Yet Utah also has been home in recent years to a new Sagebrush Rebellion, battling against federal ownership and protection of the public domain.  Utah has been the central focus of President Trump’s efforts to reverse the orders of previous presidents who protected large swaths of public lands, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, from development by declaring them national monuments.

Students will complete assigned readings on the public lands over the summer.  Once on campus, each student will choose a current public-land controversy to research and analyze.  Students will write a 6-8 page paper and present their findings to the class in the last week of the course.

Important Logistics

Students will arrive on campus on Monday, September 3 (Labor Day) and will be housed at Stanford before departing for the travel portion of the course. Travel expenses during the seminar will be provided (except incidentals) by the Bill Lane Center for the American West and Sophomore College.

This trip will include frequent hikes of up to 5-6 miles. Participants must be in physical shape to undertake these, and must bring waterproof hiking boots on the trip (should the cost of hiking boots represent a barrier to any admitted students, the Lane Center will provide assistance). Participants should be aware that, when traveling through rural and/or rugged areas, they must abide by strict safety guidelines and exhibit flexibility around meal options and other accommodations.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Bruce Cain

Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in Humanities and Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and at the Precourt Institute for Energy

Bruce Cain

Bruce E. Cain is a professor of Political Science at Stanford University and Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. He received a B.A. from Bowdoin College, a B.Phil. from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University.  Professor Cain was Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley from 1990 to 2007 and Executive Director of the UC Washington Center from 2005 to 2012.  He has won awards for his research (Richard F. Fenno Prize, 1988), teaching (Caltech 1988 and UC Berkeley 2003), and public service (Zale Award for Outstanding Achievement in Policy Research and Public Service, 2000). His areas of expertise include political regulation, applied democratic theory, representation, and state politics.

Barton Thompson

Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment

Barton Thompson

Barton (Buzz) Thompson is the Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law and was the founding director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.  A global expert on land conservation and water, he has written on subjects ranging from climate adaptation to wildlife protection to management of the nation’s public lands.  He is the author of four leading textbooks in the environmental and resource fields and is the recipient of the Law School’s teaching award.  He serves as Special Master to the United States Supreme Court in Montana v. Wyoming, an interstate dispute involving the waters of the Yellowstone River system.  He also serves on the boards of multiple non-profit organizations, including the California chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Resources Legacy Fund, the American Farmland Trust, and the Sonoran Institute.  He holds degrees in Law, Business, Economics, and Political Science – all from Stanford University.  Prior to joining the Stanford faculty, he clerked for the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.