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Examining Federal Land Acquisition Practices After World War II

By Eleanor Mahoney March 30, 2017
View of Big Cypress National Preserve. Photo by National Park Service.

View of Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. Photo by National Park Service.

In the decades after World War II, the Federal government significantly altered its approach to land acquisition for parks, forests and other protected areas. Before this period, Congress rarely appropriated funds for the purchase of private property. Instead, protected areas were either carved out the public domain (which has much of its origins in Indigenous dispossession) or created through donation. Condemnation also occurred, though at times states, with federal urging, took the lead as in 1920s/1930s era National Parks in Appalachia.

The push for open space and recreation opportunities near urban areas as well as the passage of landmark legislation like the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (1964) meant there was both an increased demand for and funds available to support an unprecedented level of land acquisition. Yet, the results of this new approach proved, in many cases, to be far from ideal. Agencies frequently acquired lands in a haphazard fashion and less-than-fee options garnered little interest or enthusiasm. Residents and landowners whose property fell within protected area boundaries became confused and angry along the way, feeling betrayed by a process that was far from transparent.

In 1979, the Government Accountability Office looked at the issue of federal land acquisition in the 1960s and 1970s in a report entitled The Federal drive to acquire private lands should be reassessed  (available via the Hathi Trust website, a free online archive worth searching if you haven’t already). This document, which includes analysis of sites like Big Cypress National Preserve and Lower St. Croix National Scenic River, provides an in-depth commentary and analysis of acquisition by land management agencies as well as agency responses and should be interesting reading for those involved – past, present and future – in adding lands to the federal portfolio.


The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Offers a Lesson in Conservation History

By Brenda Barrett December 30, 2013
Clear Cutting the Hemlock Forests in Pennsylvania  Credit: Pennsylvania State Archives

Clear Cutting the Hemlock Forests in Pennsylvania
Credit: Pennsylvania State Archives

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people  

Article 1 Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution

It is not everyday that our state courts ponder the lessons of history.  But this is exactly what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did this December (2013) when it issued its opinion on the constitutionality of Act 13. Enacted by the legislature in 2012, the act extensively revised the Commonwealth’s Oil and Gas Act to accommodate the new boom in natural gas drilling.  Among other things the amended legislation required that industrial oil and gas operations be permitted as a “use of right” in every zoning district in the state. It also adopted new setback requirements to protect waterways, but provided a waiver process that was un-appealable by residents or local governments.

Stating that drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation does violence to the landscape of the state, the court went on to consider various constitutional challenges to Act 13. Some of the most powerful parts of the decision delve into the Commonwealth’s Environmental Rights Amendment (See above).  In announcing the judgment of the court, Chief Justice Ronald Castille noted that to date the state’s environmental rights jurisprudence is not well developed.  This decision helps remedy this deficiency. The Chief Justice began by laying the following foundation.

It is not a historical accident that the Pennsylvania Constitution now places citizens’ environmental rights on par with their political rights. Approximately three and a half centuries ago, white pine, Eastern hemlock, and mixed hardwood forests covered about 90 percent of the Commonwealth’s surface of over 20 million acres. The Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, History, online at Two centuries later, the state experienced a lumber harvesting industry boom that, by 1920, had left much of Pennsylvania barren. “Loggers moved to West Virginia and to the lake states, leaving behind thousands of devastated treeless acres,” abandoning sawmills and sounding the death knell for once vibrant towns. Regeneration of our forests (less the diversity of species) has taken decades. See id

 The opinion also proffers a sweeping statement about the scope of the environmental values considered by the amendment.

The terms “clean air” and “pure water” leave no doubt as to the importance of these specific qualities of the environment for the proponents of the constitutional amendment and for the ratifying voters. Moreover, the constitutional provision directs the “preservation” of broadly defined values of the environment, a construct that necessarily emphasizes the importance of each value separately, but also implicates a holistic analytical approach to ensure both the protection from harm or damage and to ensure the maintenance and perpetuation of an environment of quality for the benefit of future generations

This is a long and complex decision with multiple appellees and cross appellants. It deserves and I am sure will receive expert legal analysis – not just a few selective quotations.  However, is it is invigorating to read an opinion that provides a historical context for the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment and makes such a sweeping statement of the landscape scale nature of amendment’s constitutionally protected values.  As Pennsylvania confronts the next massive wave of resource extraction – natural gas drilling, its citizens now have a primer on the lessons from their past as well as some strong language on the commonwealth’s duty to conserve these values for the present and the future.

The forests may not be primordial, but they have returned and are beautiful nonetheless; the mountains and valleys remain; the riverways remain, too, not as pure as when William Penn first laid eyes upon his colonial charter, but cleaner and better than they were in a relatively recent past, when the citizenry was less attuned to the environmental effects of the exploitation of subsurface natural resources. But, the landscape bears visible scars, too, as reminders of the past efforts of man to exploit Pennsylvania’s natural assets. Pennsylvania’s past is the necessary prologue here: the reserved rights, and the concomitant duties and constraints, embraced by the Environmental Rights Amendment, are a product of our unique history.

And all of this language comes before Chief Justice Castille even turned to the merits in the case.  To read the decision in its entirety goes to: Robinson Township, et al v. Pa. Public Utility Commission and Attorney General


Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service report released

By Eleanor Mahoney April 12, 2012

The Organization of American Historians (OAH) recently released the report Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park ServiceIt examines the practice of history (broadly defined) in the National Park Service today. This is an important issue, considering that 2/3 of NPS units are considered historic sites of one type or another, with the remaining natural parks also home to rich stories of the past.

Among other conclusions, the study’s authors found that:

Much is going well. Our study identified nearly 150 examples of historical projects and programs that NPS personnel regard as effective, inspiring models. We ourselves observed many instances of high-quality scholarship and creative interpretation. More than a
dozen of these successes are profiled herein, as lamps lighting the path ahead.

But we also found that the agency’s ability to manage its sites “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”—let alone achieve its highest aspirations to become the nation’s largest outdoor history classroom—has been imperiled by the agency’s weak support for its history workforce, by agency structures that confine history in isolated silos, by longstanding funding deficiencies, by often narrow and static conceptions of history’s scope, and by timid interpretation.

As a consequence, one of our survey respondents wrote, history in the NPS is “sporadic, interrupted, superbly excellent in some instances and vacant in others.” Our findings describe many specific aspects of the state of history practice today—an uneven landscape of inspiration and success amid policies and practices that sometimes inhibit high-quality work.

The report also suggests that parks look beyond their boundaries in order to tell richer, more nuanced, multi-layered narratives – perhaps considering a landscape-scale approach similar to that of National Heritage Areas. Interesting stuff!

Read the study here.