When Woody Guthrie wrote "This land is your land," the legendary folksinger and activist was speaking both lyrically and literally extolling the natural beauty of the United States while asserting the right of all Americans, rich and poor, to declare "this land was made for you and me."
A half-century later, those public lands "owned" by everyone parks, forests, rangeland, wildlife refuges reflect heart-deep feelings, even among those who never get to see them except perhaps on the Discovery Channel. For many foreign visitors, these are the US equivalent of European cathedrals.
As millions of families spend this Independence Day weekend hiking, boating, and driving through such lands, the political wrangle between those who want to preserve this treasured landscape as pristine as possible and the "wise-use" advocates pushing for more development is becoming fiercer.
Part of this is political: a shift from the Clinton administration, whose policies were crafted by appointees with backgrounds in the environmental movement, to a Bush administration that includes many officials who have worked in the oil, gas, and timber industries including Vice President Dick Cheney and the president himself.
But the conflict in values goes deeper than partisan politics.
It involves both love of nature what Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson calls "biophilia," or mankind's innate affection for the natural world and the strong American independent streak that resists government regulation. For many people, in other words, the feeling of awe that grizzly bears evoke combines paradoxically with the thrill of blasting through bear country on a Yamaha "Grizzly" model all-terrain vehicle with a 600 cc engine.
Uncle Sam oversees more than 500 million acres of land around the United States, most of it here in the West. In some Western states, the federal government either the Department of Agriculture or the Department of the Interior controls more than half the land within state borders.
This means that not only the nation's "crown jewels" parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier but timber-rich forests and rangeland for cattle grazing belong just as much to New Jersey urbanites as they do to Montana ranchers and Oregon loggers.
When Keith and Carol Pritchard of Richmond, Va., spent their recent vacation thrilling at giant redwoods, rafting the Rogue River, and hiking at Oregon's Crater Lake National Park, they redeemed a bit of their stake in public land.
Ever since the first wagon trains left Independence, Mo., for Oregon's rich Willamette Valley 159 years ago, the fact that easterners should have a legitimate claim on large tracts of the West has rankled traditional Westerners particularly when they're reminded of taxpayer-supported federal land policies (massive water projects and rail lines, below-cost timber sales, grazing subsidies, cheap mining claims, etc.) that go against the myth of Western independence.
Right up to the present, as Stanford University historian Richard White has observed, Westerners "usually regarded the federal government much as they would regard a particularly scratchy wool shirt in winter.... It was all that was keeping them warm, but it still irritated them."
Indirectly, the same feeling may be true for all Americans. Mining, grazing, and logging on public lands illustrate the conflict between environmental protection and resource extraction both of which Americans want, the one to follow their ideals and the other to support their lifestyle.
"Environmental issues today are more complex and subtle than the ones we faced in the 1960s and '70s," says Interior Secretary Gale Norton. "With the growth of our population and expansion of our economy, pressures have increased correspondingly on our undeveloped land, water resources, and wildlife."
In some cases, those pressures mean tinkering with the crown jewels.
Parking lots are being reduced at Yosemite to reduce air pollution, and there will be some logging to reduce fire hazard there both showing the necessity for "management" of nature as human impact increases. Arguments rage across the country over allowing snowmobiles, jet skis, and all-terrain vehicles into Yellowstone and other parks.
Preservation of the environment versus a policy of "multiple use" on public lands has been part of America's post-frontier history ever since Sierra Club founder John Muir debated Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot a century ago. It continues today.
In a National Press Club speech earlier this year, Secretary Norton laid out her plan for "a new environmentalism."
"The concept puts collaboration ahead of polarization. Markets before mandates. It transcends political boundaries," she said. "New environmentalism is about meeting our nation's need for a vibrant economy and energy security while at the same time protecting the environment."
These are lofty goals. They're much the same as those put together several years ago by the Western Governors Association a program dubbed "Enlibra," a hybrid Latin word meaning "to move toward balance." Its principles, crafted by conservative Republican Mike Leavitt of Utah and liberal Democrat John Kitzhaber of Oregon, include greater public participation, more collaboration between agencies and private organizations, economic incentives, and a focus on outcomes rather than government programs and regulations.
For the Bush administration, this means more road-building and logging in national forests, more oil and gas drilling in the Rocky Mountain states and Alaska. But, says Ms. Norton, it will also mean "a healthier land, watched over by self-motivated citizen-stewards."
All of which makes environmental activists suspicious.
They're using this holiday weekend to warn vacationers that favorite outdoor recreation spots could be under attack. "These spectacular places are being targeted for rapacious energy development," says Johanna Wald, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who recently sued to stop oil exploration near Arches National Park in Utah.
Rapacious or not, development of natural resources on public lands seems just as inevitable as the urge to experience their beauty, as Woody Guthrie put it, "from the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters."