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.

It’s not good a few dangerous armed men are holed up at Malheur Wildlife Refuge. I wish the officers trying to pry them out peacefully all success. My emotions conflict: I wish they’d get after it, and I’m glad I don’t have their job.

But even though the spark be a sinister folly, it is good when Americans talk about public lands. Public discourse, in its messy forms, is how a nation’s people make, renew and alter civic compacts. Public lands are among the most generative compacts Americans have made with each other.

The making goes on daily, since both the society, and the lands and waters, are on the move. The conservation tradition I steeped in 40 years ago consciously mixed these moving parts. Ted Trueblood, Ernie Day, Bruce Bowler, Nelle Tobias, Scott Reed and others in and out of Idaho cared much for the public lands themselves, and also for the civic institution of public lands. When they said public lands, they meant both, as do I.

Fred Swanson’s fine book on the pioneer Northern Rockies conservation leader Guy Brandborg starts one chapter this way: "For the first few decades following World War II, Montana’s sportsmen, farmers, ranchers, hikers and foresters could all find a chair under the spacious awning called the conservation movement."

This strikes me as an ideal for the civic footings of western public lands: users who differ, argue, ally, sunder, gain, and lose, but together hold up the poles of its spacious awning. Safeguarding the public lands’ health is a conservation job, and so is safeguarding the civic compact that keeps them public. Sometimes the jobs coincide, but often each is under tension from the other. Like separation of powers, the public lands are an experiment in fruitfully containing democratic conflict over time.

My scattered reading suggests that elites-well-off, well-educated, mostly eastern white males-first formed the public lands into legal and social flesh. Yet the lands’ reality today, their generative capacities for many and various Americans, is democratic. All sorts of people have their quarrelsome hands upon them in all sorts of ways. Conservation-minded people will rightly attend to how all these hands affect ecologies and sustainable use, but we should also keep an eye on the value the quarreling itself creates. It helps assure public lands are a durable popular institution, and generates much of the innovative capacity they have demonstrated for 130-odd years.

In this civic context, I think it’s good for public lands today that western ranchers stay among their users, finding cow and non-cow ways to do so in shifting ecological and economic contexts, in partnership and in conflict with other users.   Many ranchers (I do not include the Bundys in that group) have public lands grievances. Conservation folks will hold our own on grievances. So that the public lands stay public and their horn of plenty flowing, I hope their institutions remain able to richly contain the grievances, which will never cease.

– Pat Ford