OPINION | The debate over land use in the American West

Jeremy D. Krones
Colorado Headwaters Land Trust

Land use is a hot topic in the American West.

Different landscapes allow for different uses, depending what resources exist on the landscape and who owns the land. Regardless of whether it’s public or private, land is affected by economic or social needs, and the use is generally physical or extractive. These uses include agricultural, residential, industrial or recreational activities. Some of these activities can coexist on certain landscapes, some can’t.

The debate over land use isn’t new, but there is a new form of land use being considered at an official level – conservation.

In a recent proposal released, the Bureau of Land Management is considering raising the profile of wildlife habitats, intact landscapes, and unique cultural and natural resources on public lands to help offset the impacts of development and extraction found throughout BLM and other public lands.

From the press release, this proposal, called the Public Lands Rule, “lays groundwork for conserving wildlife habitat, restoring places impacted by wildfire and drought, expanding outdoor recreation, and thoughtful development.”

The proposal states, “This provision is not intended to provide a mechanism for precluding other uses, such as grazing, mining, and recreation. Conservation leases should not disturb existing authorizations, valid existing rights, or state or Tribal land use management. Rather, this proposed rule is intended to raise conservation up to be on par with other uses under the principles of multiple use and sustained yield.”

My introduction to the American West in college included working on a 100,000-acre cattle ranch in northern Arizona. The ranch covers both public and private lands and is a leader in the area for collaborative land management, also called “community conservation.”

While the ranch was the primary use of the land, we built relationships with recreators like mountain bikers, fishermen and hunters to ensure everyone had a good and safe time on the land, together. Loggers had permits on the forest land, and we had to work together to make sure our cattle and their chainsaws didn’t meet. Researchers from the local university studied how cattle and wildlife interacted, and how we dealt with wetlands and threatened species.

“If the land mechanism as a whole is good then every part is good, whether we understand it or not . . . to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering,” Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), the godfather of American conservation, wrote of the subject in “A Sand County Almanac.”

Conservation as an environmental practice is the responsible and shared use of resources; one of those “users,” alongside ranchers, loggers, recreators, and so many more, is the natural environment itself. Landscapes like those under the Bureau of Land Management or even under private ownership, should be used for the greatest public benefit – sometimes that means not “using” them at all, or not using them for the most obvious purposes.

Our current model of land management, public or private, is not always the most sustainable. That isn’t because it doesn’t inherently work perfectly (because what does?), but because we aren’t “keeping every cog and wheel” that make our natural resources work to their greatest extent, for ourselves and for the natural world, for the future.

The inclusion of conservation as an equivalent land use to extraction and recreation can help us maintain the land mechanism that has kept us on this track of growth and development for so long. If nature itself can’t be at the table, there are those of us who speak for it and work on its behalf.

Colorado Headwaters Land Trust/Courtesy photo

Jeremy D. Krones is the executive director of Colorado Headwaters Land Trust. The land trust’s mission is to conserve and steward the open lands and natural character of the headwaters of the Colorado River in partnership with the local community, and works with private landowners throughout Grand County to conserve their land in perpetuity. To learn more, please call (970) 887-1177 or email:

More Like This, Tap A Topic

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.