The best books for bringing the public into the public lands

Who am I?

I started studying public lands by accident in the 1990s for a class project before I really knew what they even were. Since then, I've published hundreds of thousands of words about them, including my latest book Making America’s Public Lands where I’ve brought together much of what I’ve learned. I’m convinced the national forests, parks, rangelands, and refuges are among the most interesting and important experiments in democracy we have. I'm a writer, historian, and former college professor who now calls the Skagit Valley of Washington home. As much as I enjoy studying the public lands, I've appreciated hiking, sleeping, teaching, and noticing things in them even more.

I wrote...

Making America's Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands

By Adam M. Sowards,

Book cover of Making America's Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands

What is my book about?

The federal government controls roughly 640 million acres in national forests, parks, rangelands, and wildlife refuges. Managing these lands has been an ongoing—and noisy—experiment in democracy and conservation. Making America’s Public Lands tells this history from the earliest years of the nation to recent controversies, along the way providing guideposts and explanations to help us understand the public’s land. The book shows the increasingly complex task land managers have faced as the public demanded more and more from the lands, from timber and beef to inspiration and ecosystem services. Meanwhile, the politics of it all has become ever more complicated as a more diverse set of constituents demanded their rightful seat at the table. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks

Why did I love this book?

No one writes better about landscapes, including national parks, than Terry Tempest Williams. To celebrate—and interrogate—the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, she published The Hour of Land, a breathtaking personal, political, and literary engagement with American national parks and the histories, landscapes, and people they represent. They are, as she shows, both scarred and sacred, and that makes parks so meaningful. Again and again, her words and ideas jump off the page and expressed things I’ve long believed but never articulated like, when she suggests parks might be “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.”

By Terry Tempest Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Hour of Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

America’s national parks are breathing spaces in a world in which such spaces are steadily disappearing, which is why more than 300 million people visit the parks each year. Now Terry Tempest Williams, the author of the environmental classic Refuge and the beloved memoir When Women Were Birds, returns with The Hour of Land, a literary celebration of our national parks, an exploration of what they mean to us and what we mean to them.

From the Grand Tetons in Wyoming to Acadia in Maine to Big Bend in Texas and more, Williams creates a series of lyrical portraits that…

Book cover of Standoff: Standing Rock, the Bundy Movement, and the American Story of Sacred Lands

Why did I love this book?

Whose lands are these? Jacqueline Keeler squarely addresses the nature of American lands in her investigative and personal account of two 2016 standoffs: the Bundy family’s (and allies’) takeover at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s (and allies’) protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. For each standoff, Keeler shows how competing stories animated the actors in their understanding of past and future, as well as the reactions to them. Her account powerfully forced me to reckon with the sacredness of land in the traditions of myriad Americans. Standoff brings intellectual enrichment and moral outrage in equal measure; that’s hard to beat! 

By Jacqueline Keeler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Standoff as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A powerful, illuminating book."

—LOUISE ERDRICH, author of The Night Watchman

Native young people and elders pray in sweat lodges at the Océti Sakówin camp, the North Dakota landscape outside blanketed in snow. In Oregon, white men and women in army surplus and western gear, some draped in the American flag, gather in the buildings of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The world witnessed two standoffs in 2016: the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest against an oil pipeline in North Dakota and the armed takeover of Oregon's Malheur Wildlife Refuge led by the Bundy family. These events unfolded in vastly different…

Book cover of Forty Years a Forester

Why did I love this book?

What was it like to work as a forester with the US Forest Service was young? This is a memoir by Elers Koch who worked as a federal forester from 1903 to 1943 in the Northern Rockies. Forty Years a Forester gives an inside account of how rangers built the national forest system in its earliest years, which is fascinating enough. But what makes Koch even more interesting is how he bucked conventional wisdom on quandaries like forest fires (with which he had ample firsthand experience and shared here) and wilderness long before views like his became common. Government bureaucrats rarely write good memoirs, but this one invites you in and provides real insight—and even some inspiration.

By Elers Koch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Forty Years a Forester as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Elers Koch, a key figure in the early days of the U.S. Forest Service, was among the first American-trained silviculturists, a pioneering forest manager, and a master firefighter. By horse and on foot, he helped establish the boundaries of most of our national forests in the West, designed new fire-control strategies and equipment, and served during the formative years of the agency. Forty Years a Forester, Koch's entertaining and illuminating memoir, reveals one remarkable man's contributions to the incipient science of forest management and his role in building the human relationships and policies that helped make the U.S. Forest Service,…

Book cover of The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin

Why did I love this book?

I suspect most people see much of the Great Basin—and Nevada specifically—as empty, uninteresting, and boring in its geographic features and history. I confess that I’ve been guilty of this. But in Leisl Carr Childers’s hands, I learned to recognize how full, fascinating, and insightful this place can be. She takes a key management idea that pervades public lands management—multiple use—and demonstrates what it means when the public and their representatives call for one stretch of land to be used for grazing and recreation and wildlife habitat and bombing ranges and mining and, seemingly, new things under the sun almost continuously. With a fragile ecosystem and a fractious political environment, Nevada offers many lessons that can only be taught when a careful writer digs as deeply as Carr Childers has. We’re lucky she rescued this place from relative obscurity.

By Leisl Carr Childers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Size of the Risk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Great Basin, a stark and beautiful desert filled with sagebrush deserts and mountain ranges, is the epicenter for public lands conflicts. Arising out of the multiple, often incompatible uses created throughout the twentieth century, these struggles reveal the tension inherent within the multiple use concept, a management philosophy that promises equitable access to the region's resources and economic gain to those who live there.

Multiple use was originally conceived as a way to legitimize the historical use of public lands for grazing without precluding future uses, such as outdoor recreation, weapons development, and wildlife management. It was applied to…

Book cover of Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West

Why did I love this book?

This classic furnishes the best foundation for understanding land, water, and wildlife issues in the American West—and that necessarily means the public lands. Charles Wilkinson tacks from the past to the present, from law to history to ecology, effortlessly. What makes Crossing the Next Meridian so valuable is Wilkinson showing how nineteenth-century laws—the “lords of yesterday” in his apt phrasing—continued to guide the policy and politics around public lands and resources through the twentieth century. Packed with scholarship, legal reasoning, and on-the-ground reporting, Crossing the Next Meridian laid out clearly why the West I have lived in my whole life looks the way it does. Whenever I have a question about the history or law, this is my first stop. (I would love for him to issue an updated edition.)  

By Charles F. Wilkinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Crossing the Next Meridian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Crossing the Next Meridian, Charles F. Wilkinson, an expert on federal public lands, Native American issues, and the West's arcane water laws explains some of the core problems facing the American West now and in the years to come. He examines the outmoded ideas that pervade land use and resource allocation and argues that significant reform of Western law is needed to combat desertification and environmental decline, and to heal splintered communities.

Interweaving legal history with examples of present-day consequences of the laws, both intended and unintended, Wilkinson traces the origins and development of the laws and regulations that…

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