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In Defense of Public LandsIn Defense of Public Lands

The Case Against Privatization and Transfer

Steven Davis

Narrated by Marlin May

Available from Audible

Book published by Temple University Press

Debates continue to rage over the merits or flaws of public land and whether or not it should be privatized—or at least radically reconfigured in some way. In Defense of Public Lands offers a comprehensive refutation of the market-oriented arguments. Steven Davis passionately advocates that public land ought to remain firmly in the public’s hands. He reviews empirical data and theoretical arguments from biological, economic, and political perspectives in order to build a case for why our public lands are an invaluable and irreplaceable asset for the American people.

In Defense of Public Lands briefly lays out the history and characteristics of public lands at the local, state, and federal levels while examining the numerous policy prescriptions for their privatization or, in the case of federal lands, transfer. He considers the dimensions of environmental health; markets and valuation of public land, the tensions between collective values and individual preferences, the nature and performance of bureaucratic management, and the legitimacy of interest groups and community decision-making. Offering a fair, good faith overview of the privatizers’ best arguments before refuting them, this timely book contemplates both the immediate and long-term future of our public lands.

Steven Davis is a Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin.


“Davis provides a robust defense of the idea of public lands. Unlike other recent contributions to the public lands debate, Davis does not portray himself as a neutral observer, but rather lays out an unapologetic defense of public lands.... Davis moves well beyond rhetoric to marshal an impressive amount of empirical information to make his case.”

Journal of Planning Education and Research

“Davis provides a forceful and unapologetic defense of keeping public lands public in this political climate.... (He) makes convincing and clear arguments against privatisation from ecological, economic, political, and ethical standpoints.... (T)he book is an incredibly useful and fruitful read.... (I)t is very accessible and lays out complex arguments and theories clearly.”

Conservation and Society

“Davis seeks to expose the privatization movement as little more than 19th-century robber barons dressed in free-market economic liberalism clothing. His summary of libertarian-inspired privatization proponents John Baden, Richard Stroup, Randal O’Toole, Robert Nelson and others (all familiar names at Cato-sponsored conferences) makes for good inside baseball reading.... To his credit, Davis distinguishes between those who advocate deposing federal land agencies... versus those who want to tinker at the edges with changes in governance...or budgets.... Davis doesn’t gainsay that political management of public lands is messy; it is.”

Forest News

“Davis takes on the divestiture part of the threat to public lands in this scholarly, readable, and brilliant treatment of such challenges to our public lands legacy.... (He) makes a convincing case that the campaign to transfer the wealth of the public lands to private interests has been and will be a long game.... Davis makes so many good arguments for defending public lands that a review can only provide a taste of what lies between the covers of this 273-page book.”

Rewilding Earth

“In Defense of Public Lands delivers exactly what it promises: a forceful defense of public lands at a crucial moment in American history. After presenting the views of critics of public lands, Davis carefully dismantles their arguments and counters with a compelling set of arguments that draw on history, politics, ecology, and economics to show why our public lands are an irreplaceable national treasure.”

—James Morton Turner, Associate Professor, Wellesley College, and author of The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964

“In Defense of Public Lands is timely, engaging, and persuasive. Davis presents the privatizers' perspective clearly and accurately and then exposes the illogic and folly of their arguments. The myriad data he assembles, coupled with a feisty writing style, offer a comprehensive defense of public lands. The basic argument itself is not new, but both Davis's presentation and his refutation of the privatizers' claims are fresh, compelling, and convincing.”

—Ann O'M. Bowman, Professor and Hazel Davis and Robert Kennedy Endowed Chair, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, and co-author of Terra Incognita: Vacant Land and Ur

“The book provides a brief history of public lands in the United States, and describes the various government agencies charged with their administration and protection. Davis then systematically defangs the arguments of privatizers. He resists rhetorical soapboxing, and does the hard work of laying out arguments of the opposition, examining them in light of a wealth of ecological, historical, and economic data.... Davis’s book offers an important and timely contribution toward both protecting precious natural and cultural heritage as well as a progressive political process itself.”

The Progressive

“The author does an admirable job of positing the arguments of privatization proponents before devoting the remainder of the book to building a strong case for keeping land in public hands. The economic argument is particularly compelling.... This is a convincing and fervent plea for the country’s public lands, which the author calls 'a unique treasure and the envy of the world' to be preserved.”

Foreword Reviews

“Davis presents the case for public ownership of land. He argues against those who advocate against public ownership of land as economically inefficient, badly managed, environmentally unsound, and undemocratic. He responds to these four criticisms, showing the economic value these lands generate, how well the land is managed compared to private ownership, the environmental benefits public ownership yields, and how entities such as parks, forests, and other public spaces enhance collective values. The book argues against those who want public lands to be transferred from the federal to state governments, seeing in those claims a Trojan Horse for eventual privatization. The book concludes by examining the challenges public ownership faces under the Trump presidency, and it defines an agenda to advocate for public lands. A good book for collections on environmental policy or American politics.... Summing Up: Highly recommended.”


“In Defense of Public Lands provides a very timely and cogently argued review of the primary arguments and assumptions behind both the 'privitizers' and 'defenders' of public lands.... Davis provides a clear, nuanced set of arguments to retain the public lands, primarily on economic grounds, while also including ecological and political considerations. Public lands need more coherent and powerful support in these troubling times!”

International Journal of Wildness

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