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  • Closing the Public Lands Frontier: The Bureau of Land Management, 1961–1969
  • James R. Skillen (bio)

When the Bureau of Land Management (blm) was formed in 1946, the agency and the lands it managed had an ambiguous identity and future. Formed by President Truman through the merger of the General Land Office and the U.S. Grazing Service, the blm inherited the remaining 450 million acres of public-domain lands in the American West and Alaska, which I will refer to simply as “the public lands.”1 With those lands, the blm also inherited a set of property-rights regimes—that is, a set of property rights, privileges, and relationships that control land and resource access, withdrawal, management, exclusion, and alienation2—that were strongly reflective of the nineteenth-century frontier era. They were marked by private initiative, self-regulation by public lands users, and common-law principles of prior use and appropriation. 3 Indeed, public lands users often acted as if they held common-law rights to the public lands, claims that western congressmen defended through appropriations and oversight.

Since 1946 the property-rights regimes governing the public lands have evolved considerably, transforming the public lands from a self-regulated frontier to a permanent federal land system and transforming the blm from a custodial agency to a multiple-use management agency. These transformations have been slow and halting, marked by more than one sagebrush rebellion and a substantial body of environmental litigation, and they are still challenged today.4 Political battles over the public lands and the blm were particularly fierce in the transition from the Carter to the Reagan [End Page 419] administrations and more recently in the transition from the Clinton to the George W. Bush administrations, and the blm is presently caught between the Clinton administration’s legacy in grazing and mining reform and the current Bush administration’s emphasis on rapid development of oil, gas, and coal reserves.5 The current administration, like the Reagan administration before it, is trying to reorganize the blm’s multiple-use priorities, privileging energy development over most other land values.

In light of the current administration’s initiatives, it is helpful to reflect on the development of the blm’s mission, particularly on the closing of the public lands frontier and the emergence of a multiple-use mission. For the blm, the beginning of fundamental change occurred during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from 1961 to 1969. The agency’s evolution was driven by changes in the political and legal context of public lands management, by shifts in the agency’s professional culture, and by administrative leadership united under the banner of third-wave conservation.

While other scholars have already explained the broad realignment of public lands debates in the 1960s, they have not given sufficient attention to the role that bureaucratic leaders played in this process.6 In fact, blm leaders played a critical role during the 1960s by aggressively working to redefine the public lands as a national landscape worthy of the kind of national attention and regulatory management given to the national park and forest systems. Although blm leaders fell short of their goals, their efforts—both symbolic and substantive—changed the path of public lands policy and management and set the stage for the blm’s permanent multiple-use mandate, the Fsederal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.7

The Public Lands Frontier

The public lands managed by the blm are mostly remnants of the original public domain lands that made up the American frontier. The history and impact of the frontier have occupied western historians for more than a century, ever since Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 lecture “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” For Turner, the initial existence and gradual elimination of large areas of free land in the West—the frontier—explained American development and democracy.8 Most historians have since rejected Turner’s grand thesis, but it continues to spark debate because it was built on a number of lasting insights. At the very least, western historians agree, settlement of the frontier lands played—and plays—a critical role in the political and economic development of the American...


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