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Why are Public Lands Important?

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the natural resources of the public domain seemed endless. Herds of bison blackened the plains, game birds obscured the sun as they flew past, and the forest primeval grew from sea to shining sea. A man could scratch the ground to find gold, or plow the grassy plains to bring on the rains. Land was cheap or even free, and thousands of pioneers from all over the globe streamed into the west.

Then people started noticing that these resources were either vanishing (like the bison), not equally shared (like the water), or being gobbled up by big businesses (like the timber and the minerals). Gradually, the pressure built up on the government to preserve these resources. A parallel, but smaller movement grew up to preserve particularly scenic areas, like Yellowstone and Yosemite. This was not very popular at first, and in the early 1900s, one senator successfully campaigned with the slogan, "Not one penny for scenery!"

Today, scenery ranks with resources for importance in the hearts of the American people. We turn to public lands when we want some time off from the things of man, when we want some fresh air, some space to roam, to reconnect with the universe.

We learn from public lands about the interconnectedness of life and our own cultural history. Public lands help keep our air and water clean. Public lands harbor vanishing species, relics of our past, and vistas so grand that we remember how small humans are. And public lands still provide us with the minerals, timber, water, electricity, oil, gas, and other materials we need to live our lives.

Essays about public lands by Ellen Dornan & Stephen Maurer; exhibit by Ellen Dornan »

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