Book Review

John Shultis, Book Review Editor

Wilderness Digest

December 2018 | Volume 24, Number 3


by Steven Davis. 2018. Temple University Press. 294 pp. $24.95 (pb).

The arguments over whether, why, and when governments should preserve public lands from private ownership have a very long history. The influence of liberalism (and more recently neoliberalism) in championing the private sector – which proponents argue is more efficient and effective than the public sector – has ebbed and flowed throughout American and global history. As Davis notes, Americans now live in a “perilous age” where political threats to public lands seem to occur on a regular basis. As a result, “This book sets out to offer, at this pivotal moment in the national debate, a fuller, more comprehensive, and multidisciplinary argument for why public lands ought to remain firmly in the public’s hands” (p. xii).

In its seven chapters, the book covers many different aspects of the debate over public lands. First, a brief history and the main arguments and assumptions of the free market/privatization supporters are provided; then the biological, economic, and political arguments for and against privatization are outlined. Finally, the present and future strategies for weakening privatization and associated efforts (e.g., transfer to state control) are provided.

In this final chapter, Davis identifies four specific strategies. First, the public land defenders are encouraged to “frame public lands as a patriotic imperative” to convince Americans that the loss of public lands is “akin to flag burning” (p. 193). Second, in a similar fashion, defenders should “seize the historical narrative” to create a powerful history of how these public lands came to be (p. 194). Third, land transfers to states – an increasingly common demand in the West – should be called out for truly meaning the loss of public land. Finally, Davis calls for an expanded alliance of public land defenders (i.e., beyond the environmental movement), “a grand coalition that can cut across class, cultural and political boundaries and raise a clamorous and unified roar of disapproval” (p. 196).

Davis identifies four key issues and trends for American public lands: (1) the growing population and resulting increased demand for public land; (2) the blurring of private and public conservation areas; (3) changing demographics in America, and (4) climate change issues. Each of these issues will continue to shape public perceptions of the value of public lands.

In Defense of Public Lands provides a very timely and cogently argued review of the primary arguments and assumptions behind both the “privatizers” and “defenders” of public lands. Although the contents and findings are not novel, and the book is not an objective assessment of privatization, 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!

Reviewed by JOHN SHULTIS, book review editor of the IJW and associate professor at the University of Northern BC, Canada; email:

Read Next