As the last eight years have abundantly demonstrated, we have much to be proud of in our party and our principles. While we’ve been dealt a terrible blow at the national level – and it is bad – we had a strong showing on Election Day in California and San Diego County. We had a number of key wins among our endorsed candidates, and helped defeat Measures A, B and C. That’s measurable, demonstrable success.
So understand that you and I will not arrive at our next victory on a wave of despair. We have no choice but to get to work now with meaningful action, and prepare to defend a heritage that, while vulnerable, belongs to all Americans – our public lands. National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, the National Wilderness Preservation System, and the National Park Service.
With the executive branch changing hands in January to a Trump administration, our public lands are literally in the crosshairs. Never before in our lifetimes has the danger been so acute to our wild places. In the words of the great American photographer Ansel Adams, “It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”
Throughout the Obama years we’ve seen repeated efforts by House Republicans to “give” federal public lands to states, as though those public lands had been forcibly seized from states at some other undefined moment. That is a lie. While much of our nation indeed rests on land stolen in lengthy, often genocidal campaigns against Indigenous peoples of North America, the idea that public land was stolen from states and while landowners is the claim of the Bundys, and those resentful that they must share our public lands with others. It’s the claim of those who hate conservation. It’s the claim of those who can only abuse the privilege of our nation’s bounty of public lands. It’s the claim of a greedy few who wish to mine, drill, desecrate, and log our wild places and natural heritage into cruel submission.
While most western states, including California, have not asked for federal public lands to be “given” to them, radicals in some state legislatures and the House of Representatives have. And they’re a noisy bunch.
Of course, there is no way for states like Idaho, Utah, or even California to begin to manage the volume of National Forests and BLM land within their boundaries, but Republicans like Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas have been clamoring for a land transfer on a colossal scale nonetheless.
In fact, Trump just won on a national GOP platform that says explicitly, “Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation…requiring the federal government to convey certain federally-controlled public lands to states.” No reason or necessity is given. In true Republican fashion, the GOP is inventing a straw man “problem” to advance goals of privatization and exclusion. Republicans know states are not equipped to shoulder the costs or capacity burdens of such massive swaths of public land, so they’re setting them up to “fail,” or rather, to sell the land to the highest bidder – enabling the destruction of ecosystems and wilderness in the process. That nightmare scenario will begin to present itself on Jan. 20.
The idea is not about conservation, but about enabling a federal land fire sale even worse than that committed by Interior Secretary James Watt in the early 1980s. This is a wholesale dismemberment of our federal public lands system, with resource extraction the goal as all reasonable, normal environmental regulations are jettisoned by executive order – from the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska for logging, to Wayne National Forest in Ohio for fracking.
Under Trump, an empty vessel whose only awareness of being in the outdoors is the time he may spend between getting out of a limo and entering one of his many ostentacious high-rises, this could very easily happen. If Sarah Palin (or someone worse or more malignantly incompetent) is made Interior Secretary and the feeding trough of K Street resource extractors is opened, this will be low-hanging fruit for the new Congress and administration to pick, plunder, and leave in ruins with lobbyists and climate deniers leading the way.
In Congress, steps must be taken now to protect:
- The Land and Water Conservation Fund – Enacted in 1965, the fund diverts revenue from offshore oil drilling to a variety of outdoor projects, from baseball fields to park maintenance to disaster relief. The fund was allowed to expire by the GOP Congress in 2014, was reauthorized for a year, and is currently in limbo. Last October, Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, dismissed it as a “slush find” and blocked a vote on reauthorization.
- The Roadless Rule – Approved by President Clinton in his final days in office in 2001, the Roadless Rule was the subject of a three-year study which ended new road building by the U.S. Forest Service in what are called inventoried roadless areas. The current Roadless Area Conservation Rule conserves 58.5 million acres of National Forests from most logging and road construction. This lives or dies at the discretion of the president. President Bush put it on hold when he assumed office in 2001, and President Obama renewed authorization upon taking office in 2009.
- The Wilderness Act – Signed into law by President Johnson in 1964, the Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, and protects wild areas where the “community of life are untrammeled by man, and where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” A wilderness designation applies the highest level of conservation to public land, and is the gold standard by which conservation is measured. Machines are not permitted in Wilderness areas, as the legislation is intended to preserve entire ecosystems and wild character and habitat, and it remains the most successful act of conservation in history.
- The Antiquities Act – Signed into law by Republican Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the Antiquities Act provides presidents with a mechanism to quickly secure and protect threatened areas as National Monuments if Congress is dragging its feet or taking too long to craft National Park legislation. Since 1906 the Antiquities Act has preserved areas like Joshua Tree, Death Valley and the Pinnacles in Monterey County, all of which have since become National Parks in California, along with icons like Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Olympic National Park in Washington. House Republicans despise this bill, and cry foul every time a president has utilized it – because it leaves less public land for them to steal, sell and exploit.
San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action is already working to get more attention on these public lands issues ahead of the change in power, but we need your help. Contact your U.S. congressman or U.S. senator and emphasize the urgent need to preserve the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Roadless Rule, the Wilderness Act, and the Antiquities Act. All four of these federal conservation benchmarks ensure clean watersheds, abundant forests and oxygen, and habitat for wildlife.
Our forests, grasslands, open space and public lands are a benefit to our nation’s people and character. Those elected officials who stand by while our nation’s natural heritage is desecrated for the highest bidder will not be forgotten, and will be as guilty as those anti-conservationists calling for the end to wise, effective public lands policies. Our message to Congress and the Trump administration is clear: If you sell off our nation’s public lands, you will set off a firestorm of recrimination you will never escape, or live down.
Join us for our emergency San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action meeting at the La Jolla Village Square community room on Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 6:30 p.m., and consider joining San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action today. We need your support now more than ever.
Inyo National Forest photo © 2005 Tommy Hough, all rights reserved.