AuthorWilkinson, Charles

From the beginning, and continuing today, the federal public lands have played important roles in American history. Now, the United States owns more than 600 million acres, about 30% of all land in the country. (1) These public forests, mountain ranges, mineral deposits, wetlands, deserts, and shorelines hold economic opportunities and give us many landscapes that western historian and author Wallace Stegner described as "filling up the eye and overflowing the soul." (2)

The public lands have inspired valuable history and literature from writers such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Bernard DeVoto, and Terry Tempest Williams. The works to date have addressed specific subjects: events, people, policies like multiple use and wilderness, and systems such as national parks and forests. Learning about this large and fascinating institution as a whole will make it easier to understand its place in modern America, its pros and cons, and, for example, to comprehend how, in this capitalistic country, so much land is still owned by the United States. There has never been a comprehensive book--a great book--treating public land history in a full, single narrative.

Our Common Ground meets that need and John Leshy is the right person to do it. (3) A Harvard Law School graduate, over the past half century he has been a leading scholar and celebrated teacher dedicated to public land history, policy, and law. (4) He has taken on numerous assignments for presidents, Congress, and federal agencies. (5) Most notably, he served as Solicitor, the top legal official in the Department of the Interior, for eight years under Secretary Bruce Babbitt. (6) He has always immersed himself in the history, believing that it is essential to understanding the law and policy. (7) I am confident that academics and public land participants would agree with me that Leshy knows more about the public lands than anyone in the country.

At 600 pages of text, this is a big book, but it is a comfortable, general-audience read. Leshy's writing style is never legalistic or technical. His writing is straightforward, engaging, and often humorous. He brings in quotations from interviews and gives colorful examples of how many people, public figures, and plain citizens participated in, or were affected by, historical events. Our Common Ground puts forth some large and important issues, but Leshy doesn't deal with them in separate chunks. Instead, he brings them to us as chronological stories, era by era, over the course of the book. This truly is the story of the public lands.

One of Leshy's main objectives is to identify and dispel myths about the public lands. Those myths include the notions that public lands have been a divisive force in American life; that far too much land in America is held by the national government; and that current public land management tilts far too much toward conservation, recreation, science, sustainability, and cultural values.

Without doubt...

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