Mt Banner And Thousand Island Lake Sara Jane Richardson (1)

The Unraveling of Our Conservation Heritage Begins

“Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”  –  Theodore Roosevelt

I remember writing about ongoing lawsuits over the Roadless Rule 10 years ago in early 2007, when I never imagined the fight to maintain the integrity of our federal public lands could get any worse.

At that time, former Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne had taken over from the patently dreadful Gale Norton as the nation’s Interior Secretary. Being the era of the Bush administration, I was concerned – Kempthorne’s conservation ratings were in the C range, and as governor of Idaho he rejected adherence to the Roadless Rule. However, the man had some appreciation for the value of wilderness in his state and around the west, and while the Roadless Rule remained in legal limbo and there were bouts of unnecessary salvage logging during his tenure, Kempthorne was not a bad actor in the overall scheme of our nation’s National Parks, Wilderness and public lands.

Fast forward 10 years later to the end of what has been a productive second term for the Obama administration. Despite an unfortunate move to allow greater corporate sponsorship in our National Parks, the amount of public land protected under the Obama administration has grown considerably since 2014, when the president began to heed suggestions to craft a real environmental legacy. In that regard, especially for a Chicago-centric midwesterner with little first-hand awareness of the western outdoors, Obama was active and successful.

Along with the designating the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument near L.A. in 2014, built on a long-running local push for expanded wilderness and a National Recreation Area, Obama designated three new National Monuments in the Mojave Desert, based in part on Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s 2010 plan for expanded wilderness in the Mojave (and, unfortunately, as mitigation for planned mass solar fields on public land, which SDCDEA opposes). Obama also dedicated two new National Monuments in Utah and Nevada at the end of December, and drew the usual chorus of boos from Republicans who, in their greed and partisanship, now reject any semblance of public lands conservation.

So while more public land has been protected under Obama since the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act – which added colossal acreage to established National Parks, created new National Parks from National Monuments set aside two years earlier under the Morton Proposal, and set aside new National Wildlife Refuges and Wild and Scenic River systems in one fell swoop – Obama will soon be out of the White House. He will be gone. In his place will be the most unqualified and unbalanced person ever to take the reins of the greatest power in the world. That enough is concerning. That he is enabled by the cabinet coming together now in Washington is terrifying.

Donald Trump has already made it clear he is no fan of the environment, from his denial of climate change to his stated intention to go “all in” on fossil fuel extraction and use, even though it’s hard to see Trump actually investing in a “loser” stock like coal in 2017. But in the end it may not be Trump’s ideas that sinks the environment, other than his ludicrously childish idea for a border wall. Rather, it may be the new Congress.

Congress understands process, knows how it works, and has been practicing for years with bills it knew would never go anywhere in order to get their “rough drafts” out of the way for the day when they again had a pliable Republican in the White House to push and get what they want. Despite his rudderless claims to being a grand deal-maker, it’s hard not to see how Trump is that “useful idiot” to the GOP Congress, to Putin, and to anyone who appropriately flatters him.

In fact, the beginning of what may become the great unraveling of America’s conservation policy may already be behind us, as the House of Representatives voted earlier this month to alter how Congress calculates the cost of transferring federal lands. This means the efforts of several anti-conservation zealots in Congress, most notably Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah, may at last succeed in handing over significant portion of federal land in the west to states.

The states that would be the beneficiaries of this bounty of public land are in no position to manage them financially – leaving commercial exploitation the only “solution” for managing the lands. Despite some opposition in the Senate and what has been a near-certain veto from President Obama for  years, the House has been passing bill after bill to “return” land to states since the Tea Party GOP took control of the House following the 2010 midterms.

Sadly, this is what happens when we no longer have active conservation voices in Congress, and very soon, the White House. By reducing public lands to mere placeholders and a cash cow for states and other interests who seek to log, mine and develop wild areas, we risk the west’s natural balance and the survival of thousands of species who depend on the wide open areas of the west as home and habitat. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, we could’ve saved everything, but we were too damned cheap.

So what can we do? Not to sound like a broken record, but you need to visit your senator or congressperson right now. Call their district office, be nice, make an appointment, be nice, and meet with a staff member if the lawmaker isn’t available. Repeat as necessary. Not getting a meeting? Call again and ask nicely. Reach out to every federal elected official in your area and let them know what is unacceptable and what is not to be touched as Congress flirts with undoing our nation’s most successful, long-standing conservation policies. Democrat or Republican, meet with them.

What’s most likely to be sent to Trump’s desk to be revoked? The Antiquities Act. Signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the Antiquities Act enables presidents to rapidly move to protect federal public land as a National Monument if Congress is dragging its feet on protecting or preserving it as a National Park. Republicans hate the Antiquities Act, even though it was passed by one of their own – albeit a very different kind of Republican – and have been desperate to curtail the president’s power with it for years. With Trump, all they may have to do is compliment his wife or one of his hotels to get his signature in between Twitter screeds.

The Wilderness Act is also squarely in the crosshairs. Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Protection System, which established a blueprint for applying the highest level of conservation to our greatest, most spectacular public lands. It contains some of the most humble words ever signed into law by legislators, and established a precedent for thoughtfulness in handling and managing our still-wild places:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Since designated Wilderness offers an even higher level of conservation than National Parks, Republicans have complained that Wilderness areas, often located miles from the nearest road or any trace of civilization, simply sit idle and never have any visitors. As though land that is sitting idle is a bad thing. Therefore, by their logic, it’s a waste for all that timber to remain standing or those minerals to remain in the ground, because so few people actually come to visit Wilderness areas anyway. It’s the same rationale that explains why clearcuts seldom happen near frequently-used roads: “If they could only see what we were doing in here…”

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and National Forests contain watersheds that produce our nation’s drinking water, they are home to a multitude of wildlife and habitat, and they offer to room to roam for Americans who seek to escape urban anxieties and want to get more in touch with their country’s natural heritage – and by extension, continue to fund the nation’s growing outdoor recreation industry. Now that’s something Trump ought to consider investing in.

There’s a long-standing myth too that declaring National Monuments is equivalent to “land grabs,” even though land in question in a National Monument would’ve already federal public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service or BLM. It’s an ugly charge that goes back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s and even earlier. It’s a destructive term that implies eminent domain, cattle barons and railroads of the Old West, and incites idiots like the Bundys and others who feel they are entitled to run roughshod over public land without appreciating it is land that belongs to all of us.

As I wrote on Congressman Duncan Hunter Jr.’s social media when he called recent National Monuments in Nevada and Utah “land grabs:”

“Congressman, you know better sir – setting aside public land as a National Monument isn’t a land grab. In fact, the land already belongs to us and is managed by our federal government, so the ownership doesn’t change one iota. All that is occurring is the land is set aside for all Americans and future generations in the name of conservation and recreation – not exploitation and destruction. It is keeping the land open for all Americans, not closing it off. It is protecting our natural heritage – that was the wisdom of President Theodore Roosevelt when he signed the Antiquities Act into law in 1906.”

“If you believe in protecting and promoting our natural heritage, sir, then you should thank the Antiquities Act and the wisdom of previous administrations, who also set aside places like the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree and Death Valley as National Monuments under the Antiquities Act. Today, those locales are some of our nation’s most revered National Parks, and are themselves economic engines of conservation, tourism and our nation’s outdoor recreation economy. Support our country’s Great Outdoors, sir.”

To quote conservationist and writer Harvey Manning:

“Well-informed letters about the wildland are crucial. Your feet, taking one step at a time at a studiously slow pace, know the land better than the heads of any elected officials. Insert into those heads what your feet know.

Meet with your elected officials and their staffs, Democrat or Republican. Insert into their heads what your feet know, again and again. Let them know what is unacceptable. Let them know we expect them to lead, even if they’re without power in Congress. Let them know we expect their best on these matters. Give them an opportunity to succeed, and to push back against the tide of willful destruction coming our way – and hold them to it.

We will not let the work of citizens, families and others who preserved or bequeathed so much of our country for conservation go quietly into the night.

As Theodore Roosevelt warned over a century ago, we will fight to save our nation’s natural heritage from the greedy whims of selfish men.

Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake (Ansel Adams Wilderness) photo by Sara Jane Richardson