Public lands are among our greatest treasures and our shared ownership of them is one of this nation’s greatest strengths. Americans celebrate National Public Lands Day tomorrow in a political climate where many of those lands, and the idea behind them, are under siege.
Public lands have shaped the character of the West. They have enabled local residents and tourists alike to enjoy, and benefit economically from, property that would not be feasible to own in affordable parcels. They have given people access to landscapes that broaden minds and fill hearts and dreams. They have “saved all the pieces” – or at least most of the pieces – of ecosystems that we may need even more than we now realize. We should never squander that heritage.
For more than a century, visionary leaders from both parties have understood the value of preservation. The current president, though, is a quintessential city dweller. He does not understand the ethos of the sparsely populated lands of the interior West, and he does not perceive any worth past immediate, straightforward profit potential. His beef, which he shares with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, is that new development is restricted, and both of them have tilted their ears away from voices that could clearly explain why.
Zinke wants some monuments modified to restore traditional uses, but “traditional use” cannot justify unregulated destruction, regardless of how long established and profitable such activities may be. It cannot be used as a way to locate polluting industries far from population centers. It also cannot be held up as a coded promise to “make America great again.”
Opening more land to mining, drilling, logging or commercial fishing will not revive industries suffering from low prices and decreasing demand.
Fact-based decision-making is essential. The challenge now is to draw the fine line between use and exploitation and to ensure that it holds firm.
Americans must be aware that activities we consider to be part of our heritage can be lost in a heartbeat – to other activities labeled “traditional.” Public lands grazing, for example, is not compatible with contaminated rivers. Recreation, a big economic driver, can be fenced out or driven away. Will a shrunken Bears Ears National Monument continue to protect traditional Native American uses if energy development is a competing use? “Clean coal” is not always compatible with clear, tourist-inspiring vistas or healthy lungs. Just as preservation has costs, so does development.
In proposing to modify some monuments, Zinke ironically suggests that some national monuments were designated to “prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining and timber production.” That is absolutely true, and rightly so. The Interior secretary himself has proposed limiting mining near Yellowstone because, his spokeswoman said, “Some places are too precious to mine.” Indeed, some places are too precious to be destroyed.
The American people can afford those places, and that is well worth celebrating. The day may come when we cannot. History has a long arc.
This Saturday, Americans should celebrate their invaluable shared legacy of public lands, because while we can preserve more now, we cannot go back later and create more to replace those we’ve destroyed. They must be managed, now and in the future, for the benefit of all Americans, not just corporate interests.