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A Look into the Future of Western Public Land Policy

January 7, 2021

Erika Allen Wolters is director of the OSU Policy Analysis Laboratory (OPAL) and environmental social scientist at Oregon State University. She is the co-author of the recently released The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands alongside Brent S. Steele. They explore long-standing discussions of land use, water management, Indigenous sovereignty, and more that arises in the diverse landscapes of the West. Below, Wolters shares more about the policy and future of climate change policy and what that looks like for the western United States.

OSU Press: What was the driving force to write The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands

Wolters: The western United States is rapidly changing both demographically and ecologically. As population growth continues to push urban boundaries and more people want to live in smaller towns with recreational amenities, land managers must adapt to increased demand on already stressed resources, which are simultaneously becoming less predictable to manage due to climate change. The West is also a region of abundant federal land; managers are challenged to balance multiple uses while maintaining ecological integrity. The West has been the scene of several large battles involving the Endangered Species Act, water allocation, and even contested ownership of federal land. We wanted to write this book to capture the current issues surrounding western public lands all through a lens of climate change that has undeniably further stressed attempts at policy solutions.

And, on a personal level, we are both from the West. It is part of our identity and defines much of how we relate to western environmental policy.

OSU Press: There hasn't been an authoritative book on this topic since the publication of Charles Davis’s Western Public Lands and Environmental Politics (Westview, 2001). Why is it important to have updated information on the environmental politics of western lands? 

Wolters: In 2001, Charles “Chuck” Davis wrote Western Public Lands and Environmental Politics. This book is a seminal reading in environmental policy classes, especially those that focus on the western United States. Brent and I reached out to Chuck to ask him if he was interested in putting together a new edition. With other projects keeping him busy, he declined but encouraged us to put together a new book that could essentially be an updated edition. Since the publication of Chuck’s book, the West has experienced more acutely the effects of climate change. This has altered discussion on everything from management of the wildlife urban interface to shifting energy production on public lands, and there have been rapid changes to both the population and political landscapes. We are hopeful that this book builds on Chuck’s work while providing an update on the last two decades of environmental politics and policy of western public lands.

OSU Press: What can non-environmental background folks take away from your research? 

Wolters: There are high levels of support for public lands among the residents in the West. A 2020 Colorado College State of the Rockies Conservation in the West poll found consistently high levels of support (67 percent in favor) for their Congressional member to protect the environment and ensure opportunities to recreate on public lands.[1] Generally, I think this reflects the high level of interest people in the West have for protecting public land. I don’t think you have to have an environmental background to appreciate the issues discussed in the book because each chapter is meant to stand alone and therefore provides the full context of the issue (background, challenges, policies, etc.) making the topics accessible to people with or without an environmental background.


OSU Press: Do you have a favorite chapter or scholar that you were able to work with? 

Wolters: The exciting thing was getting incredible scholars to contribute their vast knowledge and expertise to this book. I can’t say I have a favorite scholar or chapter, but I will say that I was incredibly grateful for everyone’s contributions.


OSU Press: How can we create flexible, adaptable, and encompassing environmental policies that respond to local environmental struggles in an impactful amount of time?

Wolters: I think we build on common ground. What’s been interesting is noticing the coalitions of seemingly disparate groups on issues like public land access and protection. Hunters and anglers and environmental groups are unified in their opposition to privatizing federal land and land transfers that ostensibly block the public from accessing public lands. The coalitions have proven to be a powerful political voice in protecting public lands. While policy needs to be iterative, the ability to address pressing issues requires us to find common ground. Right now, we are in an incredibly divisive political environment. However, we know that collaboration among those representing different interests can achieve environmental protection outcomes.

OSU Press: How can we center Native American voices when discussing environmental policy? 

Wolters: That’s a really difficult question, and it’s one reason Brent and I asked Shane Day to contribute a chapter on Native Americans and tribal sovereignty. Centering Native American and Indigenous voices require that there is not just an opportunity for all voices to be heard, but for everyone to participate. Part of that requires a recognition of both Native American rights and sovereignty, which continue to be neglected. Look at what is happening in both Oklahoma and Alaska. In Oklahoma, the EPA recently gave the state authority on environmental issues, even within tribal reservation boundaries. In Alaska, the Gwich’in are suing the federal government for opening parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. This land is sacred to the Gwich’in and provides critical breeding grounds for caribou, an important food source for the Gwich’in. Native American voices have often been marginalized in environmental policy; this is somewhat endemic of the larger issue of representation. Voter laws have minimized votes, and for a multitude of other reasons, Native Americans are often not represented in elected offices. I think in order for Native Americans' voices to be part, if not a central focus, of environmental policy, we need to acknowledge their connection to the land and that historically their voices have been ignored and disregarded. It also means that the way we engage in environmental policy decision-making may need to be more reflective of different ways of engaging in the policy process and may need to value outcomes that are more holistic and culturally desirable.


OSU Press: What policy tools do you think would be efficient for addressing climate change and why?  

Wolters: There have been several efforts at economic tools, like cap and trade as well as subsidies for renewable energy. The reality is that we are past due for a comprehensive plan that addresses climate change at multiple scales and utilizes diverse policy tools. We need to rejoin the Paris Agreement because climate change is a global problem and requires engagement from other nations, particularly those who are contributing the most greenhouse gas emissions. Domestically, we need to invest in green infrastructure, renewable energy and commit to achieving net-zero emissions in energy production. I think we also need to work to make this a bipartisan issue and invest in both people and ideas. There is no silver bullet to address climate change, and all policies will most likely be incremental, but we can’t delay significant action any longer.

OSU Press: What is your hope for the future of environmental policy? 

We have to stop polarizing environmental issues, especially climate change. Climate change will impact everyone and everything on this planet. Our inability to address climate change has everything to do with a lack of political will. A Pew Research Survey in 2020 found that 65 percent of Americans felt the federal government was not doing enough to address the effects of climate change.[2] The desire to address climate change is present in the electorate; it needs to be seriously addressed by policymakers.

In terms of environmental policy in the western United States, under the Trump administration, we have seen more aggressive efforts to dismantle critical environmental laws and chip away at the protection of public lands that are important for a multitude of reasons, not in the least of which are human and ecological health. This is where we can hopefully find common ground to address environmental policy. Westerners want public land protected; they want to protect wildlife and wild spaces. Regardless of where we identify on the political spectrum, the majority of westerners still agree that conservation of the West is a top priority.


[1] Weigel, L. and Metz, D. 2020. “Colorado College State of the Rockies Project Key Findings: The 2020 survey of the attitudes of voters in eight Western states”. Available at https://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/stateoftherockies/conservationinthewest/2020/2020-conservation-in-the-west-poll-data/2020%20State%20of%20the%20Rockies%20Poll%20HIghlights.pdf

[2] Tyson, A. and Kennedy, B. 2020. “Two-Thirds of Americans Think Government Should Do More on Climate”. Pew Research Center. Available at ttps://www.pewresearch.org/science/2020/06/23/two-thirds-of-americans-think-government-should-do-more-on-climate/ 

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