America's Heritage Under Attack
©1996 by Dave Foreman
Sierra Club Board of Directors
The United States is acknowledged as the world's leader in
conservation. That leadership comes from our heritage of public lands
conservation policy. National parks, for example, are often considered
America's greatest legacy.
During the first hundred years of the Republic, Congress' policy toward
public lands was to get rid of them, either through individual
homesteads or through giveaways to railroads, timber barons and
politically connected land speculators. This began to change in 1872.
After a heated debate, Congress set aside the headwaters of the
Yellowstone and Snake rivers as a "national park." In deciding that
Yellowstone should remain public for all time and not be handed over to
private interests, Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant set a new
course for the nation. During the next century and a quarter, more than
one hundred individual pieces of legislation have cobbled out a
bipartisan American consensus on public lands conservation policy.
In today's conservation debate, we often forget three fundamental
truths about the legislation that makes up our public lands
- The making of conservation policy has been bipartisan, with
Republicans from Teddy Roosevelt to Rep. Connie Morella (Md.) working
just as hard as Democrats to safeguard our public lands legacy.
- American public lands conservation policy represents a democratic
national consensus. The legislation making up our conservation policy
has come about after open and often lengthy public debate, not through
under-the-table riders on bills.
- From the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 to the
California Desert Protection Act in 1994, a heritage overflowing in
tradition and consistency has been set. (Someone might want to tell
Newt Gingrich that respect for one's heritage is a bedrock conservative
Of course, we conservationists have not always won. More land in the
Lower 48 is under pavement than protected as wilderness. During the
last 25 years, the Forest Service alone has destroyed an average of 1
million acres of unprotected wilderness a year through logging and
road-building. More species every year teeter on the edge of
extinction. The brass of federal land agencies have too often slipped
into bed with the Diamond Jims of extractive industry. But despite the
disappointments and the frequent sapping of conservation law, the
public lands have remained the public's land. Concerned citizens have
kept a strong voice -- though too often drowned out by the clatter of
silver dollars -- in public land management.
But due to the 1994 Republican take-over of Congress, our public lands
conservation heritage is as endangered as the Mexican wolf. Showcased
in individual bills or hidden in riders in appropriations legislation,
the radical gang in charge of Congress has proposed that conservation
laws be suspended to allow "salvage" logging in the national forests,
that private livestock grazing become the dominant use on public lands,
that billions of dollars worth of federal minerals continue to be given
away to corporations, that the Endangered Species Act be effectively
repealed, that the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
be turned into a private oil field, that Alaska's Tongass National
Forest be managed to produce logging jobs, that some national parks be
closed, that the public lands be handed over to the states or private
ownership, that wilderness areas be downgraded and the Wilderness Act
I'll stop here with this litany of horrors -- with which Planet readers
are all too familiar. Except for the terrible "logging without laws"
rider, which suspends environmental law to savage our last old-growth
stands, none of these bills has become law -- thanks in large part to
the valiant work of Sierra Club volunteers and staff. But all these
bills remain serious threats -- especially if the anti-conservation
crowd retains control of Congress and takes the presidency this fall.
Lost in the dust of these various attacks on the public lands is their
underlying unity. Don't think for a moment that this clutter of bills
and riders is a cacophony. It is a symphony played by an orchestra in
tune -- a carefully thought-out, coordinated assault on America's
hundred-year-old bipartisan public lands conservation policy.
We are also facing a different band of yahoos than we did in previous
battles such as the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion. Not only are the
standard bunch of bankers, loggers, ranchers, miners and dirt bikers
better organized and privy to slick PR help now, but they have been
joined by the wackos of American politics. Since colonial days, a
nativist, anti-intellectual, paranoid and gullible underground has
skidded along the outer edge of public debate. Popping up as the
Know-Nothings, riding the night in sheets as the Ku Klux Klan, or as
the John Birch Society, fearing Dwight Eisenhower as a Communist agent,
these violent, home-grown radicals have today resurfaced as the
"militia" and are coiled throughout the "Wise Use" movement. Given
voice by Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan, the
disparate factions of the nutty right are united in the modern attack
on America's public lands heritage.
Part of the reason the anti-public lands crowd has become so powerful
is that we conservationists have assumed that the national debates
about wilderness areas, national parks, public lands and endangered
species have been won. But, bankrolled by corporations, playing on the
fears of rural Americans, appealing to anti-government sentiment and
telling lies about the Endangered Species Act and public lands
"lockups," our enemies have created a real debate about our public
The Sierra Club must jump back into the debate with basic public
education about the value of public lands, the importance of wilderness
areas, and the truth about the ESA. We need to hone our message about
our public lands heritage and tell it to the nation.
Our enemies have also learned well from our organizing manual and have
done a crackerjack job of turning people out. We must make our activist
voice better heard. Project ACT is meant to do just that -- to
mobilize Sierra Club members and give them the resources to organize,
attend hearings, write letters and make public officials listen. Our
War on the Environment campaign has been remarkably successful in
holding the line -- Project ACT will make it even more successful. [For
more information, see next page.]
The short-term payoff will come this fall, when the Sierra Club targets
congressional yahoos for defeat and works to elect friends of the
public lands. We've already proved our muscle in Ron Wyden's successful
campaign for the Senate in Oregon.
We must recognize though that the Sierra Club isn't always the most
effective advocate for public lands. In these cases we need to reach
out to our allies -- and some of these allies you might not expect:
- Hunters and fishers. The hook-and-bullet crowd is up in arms. Hunting
magazines are loading their editorial thirty-ought-sixes against the
raid on public lands. The generally well-to-do and generally Republican
members of Trout Unlimited have come out strong against logging and
grazing that destroys trout streams.
- Evangelical Christians. The Evangelical Environmental Network may be
the ultimate savior of the Endangered Species Act. The group sees the
ESA as "the Noah's Ark of our day" and is taking its message of love
and responsibility for Creation to Congress.
- Budget hawks. Tension is growing between true conservatives and
supporters of corporate subsidies. The Sierra Club has joined with the
Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute
and Taxpayers for Common Sense Foundation to oppose Sen. Pete
Domenici's (R-N.M.) bill to hand the public lands over to ranchers.
Other budget hawks are going after the subsidies that allow mining,
logging and energy corporations to trash our public lands.
But make no mistake. Even with these allies, the Sierra Club is in the
fight of its life. We're in the fight for life. We are seeing what
could be the last Great Barbecue where boardroom fat cats and their
congressional golf buddies rip off our public land heritage. To let our
land -- in all its wildness, abundance, beauty and integrity -- be
taken away from us would be as radical and un-American as shredding the
Bill of Rights. The Sierra Club is the main line of defense.
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