Editor’s  note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years  ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was  the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in  Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.

"There shall be no private ownership of the streams that come out of the canyons, nor the timber that grows on the hills. These belong to the people: all the people."

These words are Brigham Young‘s, some 150 years ago.

As we celebrate and justify public lands, it can’t hurt to have the founder of Salt Lake City, the first governor of Utah Territory, and the leader of the LDS Church for 29 years partly on our side. The leader, that is, of the church to which the Bundy family belongs.

I say "partly on our side." For Young, "all the people" likely meant those of the LDS Church, not of the United States. While he governed Utah Territory it was largely a theocracy. He included women among "the people" in a second-class capacity, and he did not include native people, perhaps unless they had converted. I’ll guess he had little conception of public lands as a store of wildness and non-human life for its own sake. The streams were for irrigating farms to nourish his people, the trees for timber to build their kingdom on earth. And it may be that many mountain valleys now in public hands he would instead have parceled out to private owners.

But there in his words is ecological insight into the arid West. It’s threaded into his recognition that water and land, community and economy, are mixed private and public resources. He saw that, in the West, watersheds held in common are likeliest to provide for sustained private use downstream. The high publicly held resources support towns and farms to flourish in the valleys. In this context little separates Brigham Young’s words from John Wesley Powell‘s.

We can’t claim Brigham Young as a supporter of national public lands as we know them today. We can claim him as a supporter of how mixed private and public land ownership, which in our state is weighted well to the public side, is a wise, durable response to western conditions then, now and to come.

And we can claim him as well for early awareness that private lands and public lands, mixed on western landscapes, each increase the value of the other. Were there few private lands, what we know as public lands would likely be what the Bundys wrongly call them: the government’s, or the dictator’s, lands. But were there no or few public lands, our private lands would be less valuable and productive than they are, receive much less clean water, fish and wildlife, support fewer livelihoods, generate fewer dollars, and foster both less personal freedom and less community.

– Pat Ford