by T. A. Barron
The following commentary was first published in the Boston Globe on August 17,
A war is raging.
It involves lands essential to our nation, and will dramatically affect
future generations. No, I am not speaking of Iraq or Afghanistan. This
war is right
here: the Bush administration’s radical, all-out attack on America’s
wilderness and public lands. To camouflage this campaign, the president’s
political staff put together a series of August photo ops in our national
parks and forests.
What is at stake? These are the lands whose scenery inspired the song "America
the Beautiful." But they are much more than that.
Our national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, and other public
lands total 623 million acres—14 times the size of all 6 New England states,
or almost 6 times the size of California. They constitute a natural engine that
cleans our drinking water, purifies the air we breathe, produces medicines, provides
resources, and enhances our quality of life in countless other ways. Most important
of all, these lands connect Americans directly with the miracle of God’s
Moreover, these natural treasures are an important part of our heritage.
The very idea of a national park was born in America: Yellowstone became
first in 1872. However we define homeland security, our wilderness and
public lands must be at the core of what we seek to defend.
Not for President Bush and his team, however. Fueled by zealous anti-environmentalism
and corporate special interests, they have launched what amounts to a sustained
and systematic attack on America’s public lands. Instead of honoring
the public trust that requires protecting these national assets for our
children and grandchildren, they have aggressively pushed exploitation
by the mining,
timber, oil and gas, and snowmobile industries. Well aware of the public
outcry that such radical policy changes would provoke, they have pursued
stealth and deception.
While Americans look the other way, at more visible conflicts, this ground war
advances. A few examples:
Right after the 2002 election, the Bush administration decided to allow
a significant increase in the number of snowmobiles roaring through Yellowstone,
overwhelming public opposition and serious air pollution. The Bush team
also trying to
rip giant holes in a policy that prohibits road building and commercial
logging across 58.5 million acres of roadless lands in our national forests.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton summarily removed any portion of 262 million
acres from possible wilderness protection, thereby paving the way—literally—for
extractive industries. By renouncing all federal authority to study or
protect wilderness values in these lands, this action removed even the
that future generations might ever choose to conserve them.
These are merely a few of the frontal assaults. Behind the scenes, Bush
and company have forced sweeping changes in public lands management policies,
abandoning decades-old bipartisan approaches in favor of immediate exploitation.
encouraged Alaska, Utah, and other states to recognize abandoned trails,
burro paths, and even dry washes as public rights of way across federal
opening up the possibility that trucks could lay down pavement through
national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas.
They have removed protections from America’s wetlands and small waterways.
They outright revoked the longstanding Wilderness Inventory handbook, which
guides land managers in assessing appropriate uses of potential wilderness.
Aware of the radical extent of these changes, the Bush team has worked
hard to hide them from public view. Norton’s action affecting 262 million acres,
for example, came after no public hearings, no open debate, and no congressional
oversight. It was not even announced on the Interior Department’s Web site.
It was simply revealed in a legal settlement with Utah and released on a Friday
night, after reporters’ 5
o’clock deadlines, just after Congress had left for spring recess.
Such stealth attacks have enabled Bush and company to radically alter environmental
policies without changing the laws or risking negative public outcry. Their
methods include inviting lawsuits that could weaken protections, then settling
of court; simply burying potentially embarrassing information such as the
files on Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy commission; and quietly
dropping enforcement of key environmental policies.
And with a flair for public relations, they have cynically named new policies:
the Healthy Forests initiative aggressively promotes logging in the national
forests, and the Clear Skies program is really a major rollback of Clean Air
As a nation, we are what we save. The value of America’s public lands
cannot be measured in board feet, tons of coal, or sales of all-terrain
wilderness is lost, it is lost forever. And the biggest losers will be
generations of Americans yet unborn.
Bush’s war on our public lands is unwise, unjustified, and unprecedented.
It is tantamount to an assault on the national treasury. But defending
our public lands does more than protect valuable physical assets: It protects
security of the soul.
T. A. Barron is an author of novels for young people and nature books. A longtime
Sierra Club activist and board member of The Wilderness Society, he lives in
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