Sierra Club: The Planet-- 1996
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The Planet
The Public Lands

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 conservation policy:

  • 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 principle.)

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 shreddedÉ

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 lands heritage.

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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