A Green New Deal for Public Lands?

By Colorado Law Student Noah Stanton

We are facing a national public health crisis that should be pulling the nation together. Yet the effects of and reactions to COVID-19 track the fault lines of class, race, region, and cultural affiliation that predate this crisis and will, absent concerted national and collective effort, be exacerbated by it. These same themes—how can we create shared spaces and common futures from unequal contexts?—dominated our recent Martz Symposium. We share this recap of the conference to provide inspiration and hope in these challenging times.

Land was a central theme at this year’s symposium. That may seem natural given the program’s theme, “A Green New Deal for the Public Lands?” But oftentimes, in legal discussions of public lands, the lands themselves get lost in the thicket of regulatory overlays. Here, land—and its meaning to different communities—took centerstage, as speakers throughout the day investigated and reconceptualized the lands that our federal government manages. Academics, community organizers, and advocates presented their visionary ideas of the value contained within our public lands, as well as the ways in which we can protect these lands.

The day got started with a powerful critique from Alan Spears of the National Park Conservation Association. Spears dissected an idea often embraced at public-lands conferences: Wallace Stegner’s famous assertion that our national parks are “America’s best idea.” To Spears, touting national parks as our best idea alienates people who find other ideas far more impactful—important ideas like abolition, “one person, one vote,” or de-segregation. So while Stegner’s slogan might serve as a rallying cry for white environmentalists, Spears suggests that it fails to resonate with communities of color.  In this and other ways, the messaging about national parks creates “a land apart.” Families work hard and create homes throughout America, but our messaging suggests that “history, culture, and narrative are things that happen elsewhere.”  

Spears’ critique began to draw a throughline that would connect many of the day’s talks: Land is so much more than the geologic features or waterways that may appear on it; land truly derives value through shared experiences, culture, traditions, and legacies. For Spears, this meant we should not consecrate national parks as lands inherently more valuable than others.

Oriana Sandoval’s presentation picked up on this theme. Sandoval is the CEO of the Center for Civic Policy, an organization that works to bring the voices of New Mexicans into policy decisions in that state. Sandoval spoke of barriers of access to public lands for her mostly Latinx and under-resourced constituency. She explained that these barriers do more than exclude folks from beautiful lands. They prevent people from connecting with a culture and heritage of which those lands are an integral part.

Her bold vision is to reconnect New Mexicans with their public lands and to use those lands as an integral part of the state’s transition away from its current oil-and-gas economy. Sandoval sees outdoor recreation as a key economic driver for a post-extraction New Mexico, and she has worked to ensure Latinx youth help form this economy. As part of this work, her organization helped secure microgrants to provide kids with outdoor equipment and better access to their public lands, all in the hopes that it leads to a more inclusive recreation economy in the future.

Later, Professor Rebecca Tsosie’s inspiring talk expanded on the theme even further. To Tsosie, lands are “one and the same” with the people who inhabit them. Land contains vast wealths of knowledge that people perceive and translate, and this knowledge weaves itself into the cultures and traditions that make humans who we are. Tsosie posited that if we are to create an ethic of sustainability among our public lands, we need to develop an idea that ties the earth to its inhabitants.  This was one evil of federal Indian policy: it divested peoples of their lands and therefore separated them from this knowledge and culture. She also argued that federal policies continue to miss the mark. For instance, federal wilderness protection—the highest level of protection that we have for public lands—applies only to lands that are completely devoid of humans.

All of these talks presented conceptions of land that transcend geology and topology. Several speakers also generated ideas on ways for the law to recognize the true value of our lands. For instance, Professor Tsosie hailed the Bears Ears designation—and its efforts to establish tribal co-management of the monument—as a move towards acknowledging the presence of people on public lands and recognizing their use of the land.  Later in the day, Colorado Law’s own Professor Sarah Krakoff critiqued the notion that public lands are some distant medium for us to act on and project upon. She called for reconceptualizing these lands as our collective commons. 

Additionally, Professor Jessica Shoemaker of the University of Nebraska delivered a defense, of sorts, of property law as an adaptive tool that can respond to this changing notion of our lands.  She recounted past development of “flexible legal categories” of property—ones that go beyond the “fee simple absolute”—and touted the ability of property law to accommodate new and progressive uses of land. Current federal management of public lands (as well as Indian lands) shows a lack of flexibility, perhaps springing from a fear among land managers of relinquishing any control. But new, adaptive designations of property are possible and have developed before.

The ideas presented at this year’s symposium were fresh and innovative. Voices usually absent from these spaces were amplified and gave insight into the connection between our lands and people, tradition, culture, and more. The 2020 Martz Symposium provided an invigorating opportunity to think outside the “box” of our traditional environmental frameworks and turn a more critical eye to our land-management practices.

Noah Stanton is a rising 3L at Colorado Law.

Event videos available below: