Defending Our Public Lands that Make This Nature's Nation

Springtime wildflowers at the BLM's Carrizo Plain National Monument as seen in 2010 in the Central Valley
Springtime wildflowers at the BLM's Carrizo Plain National Monument as seen in 2010 in the Central Valley

Perhaps you saw the cover story of Parade Magazine, tucked into this week's Sunday LA Times. The title--This Land is Our Land--is a paean to Woody Guthrie's brilliant 1940 folk song about the people's claim to American beauty. Its subtitle is no less evocative: "America's hidden treasures and what you can do to save them." As these words float across a luminous image of a slot canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, you get the idea--it is time to reclaim our national heritage, to fight for the iconic landscapes that have so defined our sense of nationhood.

Yet the text inside the magazine contains no such a clarion call--this is Parade, after all; a glossy that usually contains more pabulum than punch.

So it is with this article's message: Americans should volunteer in National Monuments such as Grand Staircase and Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado; or those close to the Southland, such as the Carrizo Plain in the southern San Joaquin Valley and the Santa Rosa/San Jacinto Mountains that frame the Coachella Valley; or in any of the more than 800 sites that comprise the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS). As they scrub out graffiti, bag garbage, and geo-mark locations of archaeological significance, these worthy souls gain a sense of their capacity to effect change. "When you become so personally attached to a place, it's kind of heartbreaking," one of them confirms. "But we can make a difference."

There is nothing wrong with this take-away. But it is also a bit beside the point. The NLCS, which is part of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is badly underfunded; and as with other pauperized land-management agencies, there is a political reason for its cash-poor status. Republican Party budget-slashers have targeted these various regulatory institutions--the BLM, Forest Service, Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service--to cripple their ability to do their job.

No wonder these agencies eagerly welcome volunteer clean-up crews; they do not have the capacity to do this work themselves. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged this deficit when he thanked a national meeting of these Good Samaritans: "You are helping us...leave a lasting legacy of spectacular landscapes to future generations of Americans."

This sterling legacy is being tarnished nonetheless; our invaluable landscapes are under the gun, a consequence of the recent bruising battle over the federal budget. True, the government did not shut down and the deal that averted the shut down appeared to maintain environmental protections, a defensive move that earned the Obama administration quick praise from mainstream green organizations. Here is Scott Slesinger, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Alas, these politicos may not have stood quite as firmly as first was thought. Details of the budget negotiations suggest that the fiscal cuts and policy compromises that these lead Democratic negotiators accepted may have established some troubling precedents for our public lands and the species they shelter.

Start with wolves.Their presence has long bothered some western ranchers who are convinced that these animals' existence is in direct competition with their livestock operations. Since the early 20th-Century they have secured federal support for their convictions, funded mandates that have helped them wage a brutally successful extirpation campaign. By the 1930s, wolves--and a lot of other critters--had been cleared from mountain, valley, and range.

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Congress began to reverse its commitment with the enactment of the Endangered Species Preservation Act (1966), later expanded through the Endangered Species Act (1973): by law, public-land bureaus now were required to maintain habitat for those species threatened and endangered. In time, scientists and activists began arguing for the reintroduction of those animals--including wolves, bears, coyotes--that once had been shot, poisoned, and trapped.

Initial recovery programs demonstrated some success, and yet with every sighting of a healthy new wolf pack opposition to reintroduction became more vocal. Since the late 1980s, these opponents have fused their rhetoric with the region's longstanding antipathy to the federal government's legal obligations to protect and manage the public domain. Shooting wolves, really and metaphorically, has been a way to stick it to Uncle Sam.

President Obama seems okay with that hostile posture. He signed off on a provision that Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) stuck into the budget agreements to return wolf management to the respective states. To shore up Tester's electoral prospects, the administration stripped this endangered species of their ESA protections at the very moment when their recovery seemed assured. As has been demonstrated in the bloody history of human predation on wolves, this magnificent animal is going to take a very big hit.

The ESA may also be struck down. The Tester-Simpson amendment "certainly sets a precedent," Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the New York Times. But "probably more disturbingly, it sends a signal that, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, the Endangered Species Act is a bargaining chip."

The gamble has emboldened Republicans in Congress further to challenge the Obama administration's legislative agenda. One example of many: they have stopped the BLM from creating an inventory of lands that have the potential to be designated wilderness. Identifying these priceless open spaces had been a key feature in the president's "America's Great Outdoors" program, designed to reconnect us with our environs. That he was willing to sacrifice this exciting initiative within weeks of announcing it, speaks volumes about the strength of his environmental commitments.

To reverse this dispiriting dynamic will require something more than feel-good volunteerism in the national forests, parks, and refuges, monuments and grasslands. It demands an engaged citizenry willing to challenge their representatives to do right by our treasured terrain and the communities--human and natural--that it sustains. The first step will be to hold the president to the promise to future Americans embedded in his proclamation declaring April 16-24 National Parks Week:

If this land really is our land. If as Woody Guthrie once sang, "it is made for you and me," then we must launch an energetic political campaign to make it so.

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