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This Land Was Your Land

For more information about Strategic Ignorance, go to

Bush administration policies abandon promise of America’s wilderness heritage

Adapted from Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, by Carl Pope and Paul Rauber, to be released by Sierra Club Books in May. In the following passage, the authors discuss the formulation and the bent of public lands policy in the Bush White House.

To help shape his wildlands policy, President-elect Bush brought to his transition team Terry Anderson, a libertarian economist and author of a "blueprint for auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years." Instead of retaining large ecosystems for wildlife, Anderson urged that we "partition" our forests and wilderness areas into individual tracts and allow them to be auctioned off. He strongly urged that we sell the parks, too, leaving conservation to the wisdom of the market. Anderson sought a future where there might, or might not, be restrictions on logging or mining the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone—depending on the high bidder at the auction.

There may be no concept more loathed by the Bush wrecking crew than that of the commons: our national forests and grasslands, our rivers, shores, and oceans, held in common by every citizen. The Bush team needed a plan, and Utah Congressman James Hansen had one ready. Hansen, who had fiercely opposed his state’s new Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, found himself the new chair of the House Resources Committee. He fired off a letter to Bush and Cheney, outlining his plan to convert public lands to private profit. While other administrations would have filed Hansen’s letter away in the crank file, the Bush administration dutifully cut-and-pasted it into its "to-do" list and went to work.

One of President Clinton’s final acts was to put in place a comprehensive plan to protect the nation’s remaining wild forests. Little is now left of the old-growth forests that once blanketed our country, but three-quarters of what remains lies within the national forests, where it constitutes prime habitat for endangered species and a model for future restoration efforts. But more than half of the total area of the national forests has been degraded by logging, mining, and the 440,000 miles of roads that make industrial resource extraction possible. To protect the precious remnants, Clinton’s Forest Service chief, Mike Dombeck, devised the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, prohibiting new roads from being built in virgin forests, of which nearly 60 million acres remain. Two national forests in Alaska, the Tongass and the Chugach, account for a quarter of that total.

This was no hasty midnight action. It was the result of one of the most exhaustive rule-making processes in American history. It took three years, hundreds of public hearings, and a million public comments to put the Roadless Rule in place. Subsequent efforts to back up the rule added another 1.2 million comments to the record. Of the 2.2 million total, 95 percent were in favor of strong wilderness protection. The need for conservation was clear, the science was sound, public support was overwhelming. Bush immediately began working to tear it down.

This was a job for Mark Rey, former chief lobbyist for the American Forest and Paper Association. Rey was experienced in opening up vast swaths of forest for the timber industry; he was the architect of the disastrous 1995 Salvage Logging Rider, which allowed the Forest Service and BLM to sell off the nation’s forests without regard to environmental laws or even whether the sale made any money. Two years later he tried to push through a wholesale revision of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), which would have made timber sales mandatory and environmental laws optional.

Once confirmed as the Agriculture Department official in charge of the Forest Service, Rey picked up where he had left off. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, Rey made clear that all of the fundamental environmental laws governing the forests—the NFMA, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act—needed to be "re-examined," "reviewed," and "re-opened."

The first forest to suffer Rey’s review was the Tongass. In June 2003, the Forest Service announced that it would allow states to "seek relief for exceptional circumstances." Alaska had sued over the protections given the Tongass, and John Ashcroft’s lawyers simply caved, allowing the first exemption from the Roadless Rule. Western governors were invited to join Alaska in seeking exclusions for their states as well.

Bush and Rey soon found a more expedient way around the rule. In July, a U.S. District Court judge in Wyoming struck down the Roadless Rule, claiming that the three-year, multimillion-comment process had been rushed and that there had been confusion about which areas were covered by the ruling. (The ones without roads, Your Honor?) Despite promises made by Attorney General Ashcroft that he would "support and enforce" the rule, the administration said it would not appeal the decision. Eight environmental groups stepped in to defend the rule in the government’s stead. The Justice Department argued that the groups had no "direct stake in defending the regulations" and thus could not defend it in court.

In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the "closing of the American West." In 2003, Gale Norton bolted the door, declaring that America had as much wilderness as it would ever need: the current 22.8 million acres, and not an acre more.

By law, Congress is required to decide what to do about areas that could, because of their remoteness or recreational value, qualify as wilderness but have been neither formally rejected nor accepted into the wilderness system. Such lands are called Wilderness Study Areas, and while awaiting congressional action they are largely protected from commercial exploitation. By 2003, many states had well-organized citizen groups lobbying to make them official wilderness.

To avert that possibility, the Bush administration encouraged a lawsuit against itself. The state of Utah went to court, ostensibly to protest the 2.6 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas designated by Clinton’s Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, in Utah’s redrock canyon country. Utah had already sued over these acres, only to be rebuffed by federal judges.

This time, Norton simply threw in the towel, agreeing to withdraw protection from the acreage. She also volunteered to preclude protection of as much as 220 million more acres in other states, ending a 25-year-old practice by the BLM of considering wilderness qualities before allowing logging, mining, or other anti-wilderness activities. Norton simply signed a court settlement promising that never again would she or any other secretary of the interior protect wilderness-quality areas that Congress had not yet acted on.

It was the largest single loss of public land protection in American history. It came, like so many of Bush’s environmental attacks, late on a Friday afternoon, this one before a long weekend while the nation was intensely focused on the war in Iraq. As Karl Rove planned, almost no one noticed—except the miners, contractors, off-road-vehicle manufacturers, oil companies, and timber interests who now had the right to despoil an area of the public domain as large as Oregon, Washington, and Idaho combined. Beneath the radar of public attention, Bush had given up on the promise of America’s common heritage of wilderness.

As Congress went home at the end of 2003, the Roadless Rule had been abandoned, mining companies freed of their obligation to keep toxic mining spoils off the public lands, and the Interior Department and Forest Service excused from public scrutiny of their faithfulness to the ecological charters given to them by Congress.

George Bush has not (yet) been able to scrap all of Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. But that says more about the size of TR’s legacy than it does about the intensity of the administration’s efforts. Indeed, Bush has stripped protections from more of the American landscape than any other American president, including Roosevelt, ever managed to protect—some 234 million acres and still stripping.

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