This land is our land: The bitter debate over America’s public spaces

Cedar Mesa Citadel Ruins, Bear Ears National Monument - Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management, Flickr CC 2.0

Cedar Mesa Citadel Ruins in Bear Ears National Monument // Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management, Flickr CC 2.0

There have always been those who oppose altogether the idea of federally administered public lands, mixed use or not, often for economic reasons.

While the railroads were enthusiastic about Yellowstone National Park, local sentiment ran decidedly against it. The Helena Gazette editorialized in 1872: “We regard the passage of the act [to protect the area] as a great blow struck at the prosperity of the towns of Bozeman and Virginia City.” In 1897, the Williams Sun argued the effort to create a national park around the Grand Canyon is a “fiendish and diabolical scheme […] The fate of Arizona depends exclusively upon the development of her mineral resources.”

John Muir - Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs DivisionWEB

John Muir // Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Throughout the 20th century, the establishment of almost every national park, monument, or wilderness area provoked similar opposition, generally localized but at times developing into a larger movement.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Sagebrush Rebellion in the western states contributed to a reassessment of land management policy, succeeding in reducing some measure of federal oversight during that time. It also produced its own powerful legacy, this time not for preservation but as (often armed) resistance to federal conservation efforts.

When Ammon Bundy led an armed occupation of eastern Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year, he and his supporters opposed what they saw as the usurpation of property rights by the federal government. Almost inverting Muir’s vision of wild preserves, Bundy argued that “this refuge has been destructive to the people of the county and to the people of the area.” Although national public opinion generally condemned Bundy and his co-conspirators for their actions, thousands in the West rallied to his defense. The anti-government zeitgeist that would help win Donald Trump the White House and cement the Republican hold on Congress was already building. And it has begun to undermine (literally in places) a century of federal conservation efforts.

In the early days of Trump’s presidency, we have seen almost weekly congressional proposals that distort Pinchot’s ideal of cautious multiple-use conservation and violate entirely Muir’s vision for preservation.

Gifford Pinchot - Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & EwingWEB

Gifford Pinchot // Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Photograph by Harris & Ewing

Resolutions to open up oil and gas drilling in national parks, not to mention the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, have been introduced in Congress and supported by President Trump. The sale of 3.3 million acres of federal land, H.R. 621, was proposed, though ultimately scuttled after an outcry from sportsmen and conservationists alike.

Congress also changed the way it calculates the cost of transferring federal land to the states—potentially making land easier to sell to developers if it came under state control. And while Trump himself has said he does not support the wide-scale selling off of federal lands, Congress seems to be pursuing just such an agenda. A little more than 100 years after Hetch Hetchy, the untrammeled capitalism that both conservationists and preservationists feared seems nearer than ever.

In the end, whatever their differences, Pinchot and Muir both recognized that we live in a world of limits and that living as though there weren’t limits was a moral shortcoming. “[Conservation],” Pinchot wrote, “holds that the people have not only the right, but the duty to control the use of the natural resources. […] And it regards the absorption of these resources by the special interests, unless their operations are under effective public control, as a moral wrong. Conservation is the application of common sense to the common problems for the common good.” We ignore his words at our peril.

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