Federal Lands, Local Communities and the Imperial Gaze

Last year about this time I attended my 40 year alumni reunion for Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. It probably won’t surprise any readers that I was the only person in my class from the Interior West. Most of the graduates I ran into had spent a career in non-profit conservation organizations. Some like me, had gotten Ph.D.’s but had gone on to careers in FS R&D, universities or environmental NGO’s.

I was reminded of this by our discussion this week which included the idea that “everyone’s voice should count equally in federal land management and local people should have no particular extra voice.”

Some of my alumna friends were unpleasantly surprised that when Katahdin Woods and Waters became a National Monument (having been donated), the Trump administration could weigh in on how the land was to be managed. It seemed to me, that of course, if you donate land to the federal government, then federal agencies, under elected officials in the executive branch, folks in the legislative branch, and the judicial branch will have a say in how it’s managed. What veterans of this blog might call the “usual suspects.”

Based on the public meetings for that Monument, some people want to continue logging, have ATV’s, etc., in parts of the monument and others don’t. But one thing that seems clear about this National Monument is that the Park Service is targeting people in Maine for public meetings. They have a planning page here, and here is an announcement . It seems like Mainers- residents, interest groups, elected officials- have a special place in determining what goes on in this National Monument. If, as an SES EPA leader once told me (in Delta, Colorado) an apartment dweller in New York should have equal voice in what goes on on the GMUG National Forest, why shouldn’t it work symmetrically in all directions? For example, someone in Montana might think it is environmentally destructive vis a vis climate change to allow ferries out to Ellis Island in New York. It’s not hard to think that this idea (it’s everyone’s business equally) applies to Easterners about the West and not so much to Westerners about federal lands in the East.

It seemed in my conversations with my fellow alums about federal management in the Interior West, that to some easterners, western landscapes are iconic in a way that their own are not, or the local inhabitants are not to be trusted in a way that theirs are. Yes, there could be a partisan influence here, but I don’t think that that’s all of it..the West has always had a unique spot in the American psyche. Against that scenic backdrops have always been inhabitants reduced in agency due to the predominance of federal lands. It’s almost as if there is a kind of “domestic imperial gaze” reflecting a power and privilege disconnect between the coasts (and their dominant media and narrative) and those of us living out here. (Thanks to Iliff School of Theology for getting me up to speed in these concepts- here’s what gaze currently means in academic world via Wikipedia including examples).

One way to counter these forces is to support our local and regional media outlets. Are there other ideas?

4 thoughts on “Federal Lands, Local Communities and the Imperial Gaze”

  1. Thanks, Toby. It’s difficult to wade through all the academic-ese sometimes, but sometimes there are good ideas buried there..

  2. The late Mark O Walsh worked for US Rep K Gunn McKay during the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. He once described to me how many in Congress at that time assumed public involvement would work under FLPMA.

    Natrually, many in the Western public land states, as apparently now in Maine, we’re concerned that citizens from far away would have equal say about how public land would be managed.

    Mark attempted to ease concerns of Westerners by suggesting that the NEPA analysis would treat public comments much like it would treat natural resources: considering direct, indirect and cumulative impacts.

    So input by those living adjacent to and are directly impacted by the Katadin NM’s plan would be considered in the analysis much as direct impacts are. Those who visit occasionally as indirect impacts. And the input from the appartment dweller in Elsinore, Utah, although interested and concerned, would be considered as cumulative impacts.

    It never worked out quite like Mark had hoped.

    Anyway, I think public input is a sham. No secret why most comment analysis is farmed out to contractors.

  3. How is what the Park Service is doing in Maine in the way of public outreach different from what they do, or the Forest Service does, in the west? I assume all of their units follow the same agency planning procedures regardless of location, as does the Forest Service anywhere in the country.


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