America’s public lands.
This idea was seeded by early American settlers, who came here to escape a class system in Europe that excluded them from land – owning it, hunting on it, surviving on it. Conservation was articulated as a national endeavor by hunters and foresters with the unique discernment that our game and timber resources were not boundless, and required professional management to remain bountiful.
This was a hard-won national ethos. From the pitch battles for their existence, our public lands were imbued with moral standing and national sanction: the idea that they “belong” to all of us.
What could go wrong? Much in the way of human frailty. But, most grievously, the threat to the communities who live there of dispossession from their homes. Our public lands, including the national parks, also encompass a brutal history of broken treaties with Native Americans. And rural Americans today fear they are being “regulated off the land” for the sake of urban notions about it; that their voices and knowledge are overwhelmed by the urban supporters of environmental groups who know nothing about their lives.
Ninety percent of our federal lands are located in what are called our public-lands states: Alaska and 11 western states. On average, 50% (and as much as 80%) of land in these states belongs to the federal government, making the residents almost wholly dependent on places over which they have no control. In spirit and law, these “affected communities” are guaranteed a voice and protection; in practice, the rhetoric and reality have fallen short. Unheeded voices lead to unfortunate results.
It is rural America that gave President Trump his election. Hillary Clinton won the nation’s largest metropolitan centers; Trump took more rural areas. These pendulum swings in public lands policy are doing harm to both affected communities and the resource.
On the broader sweep of our public lands now, the rebounding and intemperate emphasis on resource extraction is out of balance, and dangerous to other fundamental resource values. It is also entirely misleading and short-sighted for the interior department to encourage coal production when the market simply will not support that.
These communities will be let down again.
Where do we have both potential and real agreement? The heart of our public lands system, our national parks. Restoring them to full vigor should be a project that plays to Trump’s strengths, and guarantees him a lasting legacy.
Western communities deeply resent those of us from the outside touting tourism as the be-all-and-end-all for their economies. They hear us saying: “Turn your cowboys into busboys.” This is not a welcome message to the hard people that these hard places raised up. Nonetheless, the west does enjoy a robust tourist industry, and they understand that our national parks contribute substantially to that.
Our national parks are straining at the seams of popular overuse and congressional neglect. They are last on the list of what Congress provisions. Infrastructure is crumbling, with an $11.3bn backlog in maintenance projects. National park professionals from rangers to scientists are demoralized and overwhelmed; they are asked to live in substandard housing, do more with less, and lately they have been excoriated by some DoI leadership. Those who staff our national parks are critical to the experience of the them – from interpretation to monitoring of the natural resource, to ensuring that concessions are well run, to keeping tourists and wildlife safe from one another.
With an improving economy, it is time for Congress to stand up for our history and our natural inheritance, and move a decimal point so, at the very least, we can provide decent housing for national park staff and fix the backlog of maintenance problems. Then, we need to take innovative approaches, fully utilizing the boon of new technology, to raise more funds. Foreign visitors, for instance, may need to pay more, as they do in several other countries.
Urban recreationists also need to step up to the plate. Hunters and anglers, mostly rural people, support conservation through licenses, tags, and stamps. What many don’t know is that the excise tax on guns goes directly to conservation. A “boot” tax for climbers, cyclists and hikers should not be beyond the pale.
It is past time for the left to understand that people live in the great out there, and social justice extends to them as well. Urban citizens depend on rural for resources and the passive ecosystem benefits that their good stewardship provides.
It is past time for the right, particularly the religious right, to articulate an ethical relationship to the intrinsic, versus utilitarian, values of nature. The failure to do so has left the Republican party’s “natural” constituency – rural communities – vulnerable to polarizing characterizations. And it has left our natural resources vulnerable to degradation.
We need to embrace what Dan Kemmis, a Montana Democrat and political leader, once wrote: “We have a mutual stake in the shape of one another’s lives.”
Our public lands have had their inheritance of grief, but they will always partake in that rarest of all human experiences – glory. And for the sake of that, we can do better.