John Leshy is the distinguished emeritus law professor (U.C. Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco) known for his expertise in federal land use laws: water law, Indian law, and mining law among others. He has advised both the Clinton and Obama administrations and served as the Solicitor (General Council) for the U.S. Department of the Interior during the Clinton administration. Dr. Leshy shares his views concerning the management of our public trust lands and some of the challenges we face. He explains why it is essential to keep these lands in the public domain.
John Leshy is the Harry D. Sunderland Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He was Solicitor (General Counsel) of the Interior Department throughout the Clinton Administration, and earlier was special counsel to the House Natural Resources Committee, a law professor at Arizona State, Associate Interior Solicitor in the Carter Administration, helped found the western office of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and a litigator in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He led the Interior Department transition team for Clinton-Gore in 1992 and co-led for Obama-Biden in 2008. He has an A.B. and J.D. from Harvard and has frequently been a visiting professor at its law school. A more complete bio and list of publications are available at
Huey Johnson: Dr. John Leshy, welcome.
John Leshy: Nice to be here, thank you.
Huey Johnson: How did you develop an interest in environment?
John Leshy: You know I grew up in a rural area and spent a fair amount of time as a kid outdoors. I was a boy scout and went camping, and hiking, and stuff like that. Years later, I went to college–to law school–and I went to Washington and worked in the justice department back in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. Through a fluky series of events, I ended up being hired by a fellow named John Bryson at the Natural Resources Defense Council when the relatively young organization opened its Palo Alto office. I (had) just at that point become involved in public land issues, including forestry, water and livestock grazing. That allowed me to marry my professional life with my boyhood interest in the outdoors.
John Leshy: All of us involved in the public lands–as you have been over the years as well–do deeply feel that it is a public trust. The wonderful thing about these vast landscapes that the United States owns and manages for everybody’s common interests is that it really is a resource held in trust.
John Leshy: One of the things I’ve discovered, and I don’t think enough attention has been paid to this, is that the idea of keeping these lands public and accessible was kind of a unifying healing force. From about 1865 to 1900 was really when this whole idea kind of took root…that we were going to set aside some big landscapes and protect them in federal ownership. It was Democrats and Republicans, this was not an issue the political parties divided over at all. Many people who helped nurture this movement had been deeply involved in the Civil War on both sides, Confederates and Union, and I think there was a healing thing going on. The idea was to safeguard these lands for public use, and restore, or bind up the nation’s wounds, to use Lincoln’s expression, and rebuild pride in America. I think that had a lot to do with it.
Huey Johnson: That’s a wonderful idea.
John Leshy: Yes.
John Leshy: There are lots of challenges ahead. There is nothing in the Constitution that says the government has to hang onto and keep these big, open landscapes accessible to all. Congress could sell them all off tomorrow. What prevents that from happening is political support, enough people need to believe in the value of these places remaining in public ownership. So you have to really educate each new generation to the value of that.
John Leshy: One of the things that’s happened–and it’s discouraging–is that over the last 20, 25 years both Republicans and Democrats have frankly squeezed the budgets of these land management agencies. They are getting fewer and fewer dollars to do more and more work, and you see the results on the ground. A dramatic example is the Forest Service. The Forest Service budget now has probably been flat for the last 20 years, but 20 years ago they were spending 10% of that money on firefighting. Do you know what they’re spending now? Over 50%. It’s gone up dramatically and that squeezes out lots of other things.
John Leshy: One of the reasons I worry about the future of the public lands is climate change. It’s going to make everything much more complicated. It’s already complicated and controversial, but if throw the challenges of a changing climate on top of that, it just makes everything worse. We’re going to see more insect and disease outbreaks. We’re already seeing that in some places.
Another place where it will be felt is with regard to water. The primary reason we created the National Forest system was water; protecting watersheds, water supplies. What persuaded people to act, and what persuaded politicians to act was this concern about protecting the water supplies of cities like Charlotte, and Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City. Now climate change is going to change the water regime a lot. In California, the snowpack in the Sierras is not going to be there in a few decades probably, or at least in the same amount. The changing water regime of the public lands will greatly complicate how we manage those areas.
Huey Johnson: I remember a quote in a book: Aldo Leopold said, “There should never have been a cow.”
John Leshy: I can defend cows being on some public lands, where there’s water, and a history of ruminants grazing. But in the desert southwest, they do not belong, and they’ve had devastating impact. The best way to deal with the grazing issue in such places is basically to buy out the public lands ranchers and retire the lands from grazing. A lot of these ranches are for sale, particularly those that graze remote, environmentally sensitive public lands, because they tend to be the most difficult and costly to graze from a ranching standpoint. Also, the average age of a public land rancher is something like in the high 60’s now. Their kids often don’t want that life; they want to go off to the city or do something else. So there are a lot of ranches for sale and if conservation interests could buy them, and there was a legal mechanism to permanently retire the public lands involved from grazing, which is currently not easily done, a lot of progress could be made.
Huey Johnson: Is there any hope?
John Leshy: The public lands being public, and being part of this Public Trust idea, are a key to really wrestling with these problems. And to get back to that earlier message, we need to make sure that younger generations appreciate all this, and appreciate what those lands mean.