Between 1891 and 1939 a substantial portion of the land area of states in the American West were set aside for management by the federal government. These so-called “public lands” have been a source of contention ever since, engendering conflict among an assortment of stakeholders looking to use the lands for a variety of purposes—from conservation and habitat protection to mining, grazing, and logging. Fellow Joseph E. Taylor III, professor of history at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, is working on a new project examining the legislative history surrounding land conservation in the Progressive era—a story that gave shape to 47% of the West.
In this podcast, Taylor discusses how the controversies surrounding land conservation represent a disconnect between popular conceptions of these lands and more technical understandings rooted in legislation passed by Congress. Often accompanied by population displacement, the term “conservation,” Taylor shows us, cannot be taken at face value—nor can the term “public.” By recentering the political economy surrounding federal lands, which are better understood not necessarily as public lands but as government lands, Taylor’s analysis reveals a “messier” and more complicated story than the one usually told.