Mongabay Features

Can public lands unify divided Americans? An interview with John Leshy

It might be hard to believe in the current political climate, but public lands were a unifying issue for Americans until quite recently. Most Americans have supported the idea of the government owning and managing large areas of land for public use, and that bipartisan consensus has culminated in the creation of vast network of national parks, forests and monuments which are collectively visited by tens of millions of people annually.

Does that mean public lands could serve as an opportunity to bridge gaps in a polarized America? John Leshy, an emeritus professor of law at the University of California Hastings and general counsel at the U.S. Department of the Interior during the Clinton administration, thinks it’s possible.

John Leshy in the Eastern Sierras of California. Photo courtesy of John Leshy.
John Leshy in the Eastern Sierras of California. Photo courtesy of John Leshy.

Leshy, who began his career litigating civil rights cases for the U.S. Department of Justice, has spent much of the past five decades working on public lands issues. He’s co-authored the standard casebook on federal public lands and resources, served as an administrator and advisor on public lands issues for governments and NGOs, written books on the Mining Law of 1872 and the Arizona Constitution, and penned influential thought pieces, including a recent commentary in the New York Times on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In recognition of these achievements, in 2013 Leshy received the Defenders of Wildlife Legacy Award for lifetime contributions to wildlife conservation. Leshy is now working on “Our Common Ground: A History of America’s Public Lands”, a forthcoming title from Yale University Press.

During a September 2020 interview with Mongabay, Leshy spoke about how public lands could help a divided America find common ground and heal as it works to address the daunting new challenges posed by climate change.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.