Public Lands & Waters photo

First, a bit of a rant, and then I’ll end with a question that I hope others will help me to answer. Late last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a story entitled “Wilderness Policy Sparks Western Ire,” subhead “Obama Directive to Expand Limits on Unspoiled Lands Draws Opposition from Companies, Ranchers and Sportsmen” (Please note that no sportsmen are quoted in the article)

The WSJ story concerns the new policy that the Obama Department of Interior, headed by former Colorado Senator Ken Salazar, has adopted to evaluate the wilderness qualities of hundreds of thousands of acres of public land managed by the US Bureau of Land Management. The new policy could reverse the extremist (my opinion) “no new wilderness” policy on BLM lands that was imposed in 2003.

In a press release on December 23rd, Salazar said:

“First: the protection of wild lands is important to the American people and should therefore be a high priority in BLM’s management policies. Second: the public should have a say in designating certain public lands as ‘Wild Lands’ and expanding those areas or modifying their management over time. And third: we should know more about which American lands remain wild, so we can make wise choices, informed by science, for our children, grandchildren and future generations.”

The announcement is a very welcome change, if not yet in direction, at least in thinking, for the BLM, an agency that is of critical importance to sportsmen- it manages 245 million acres of US public land (which includes a lot of my antelope, mule deer and birdhunting, by the way) . Some of that land certainly merits protection as wilderness, isolated, rugged, intact places where you can ride horseback or hike and hunt and fish without worrying that next year the seismic trucks will come roaring in, the drillers assembling, the wind farms towering, the endless development schemes and plans that have poured like a Biblical flood over so many of the places we’ve known and loved and hoped to share with our children.

But even this mild shift in direction for the BLM was greeted with scorn and fury by some of our elected officials and their – let’s face it – masters in the energy industry.

Here’s a few of the statements from those who, apparently, have decided for all of us that every single acre of our public lands managed by BLM will be open to development, regardless of the record of lost wildlife and hunting opportunities on BLM lands already, no matter that more and more of us are facing a world without the very kind of wilderness hunting and fishing that are still found on the isolated parcels of public land at issue. No matter, even, that these last parcels of land have never been shown to possess the assets- oil, coal, gas, minerals, that these people seem to crave as the only measure of value for any place on earth. Let’s hear what our elected representatives had to say, about this mild shift in federal policy:

“The Obama Administration just left a giant Christmas present under the tree of the radical environmentalists who got him elected, and Western states like Montana are going to get stuck paying for it,” U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., quoted in my local paper, the Great Falls Tribune.

From the WSJ story: “This harms economic growth,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who takes over next month as chair of the House subcommittee on public lands. “The West is being abused.”

And, also from WSJ: “The message of the [midterm] election is we want less regulation, less government intrusion. We want to keep these lands open,” said Rep. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican.

End Quotes.

The lack of any substantial meaning in these quotes is not what is most disturbing about them. What is disturbing is that we seem to have lost any conservative political leaders who understand sportsmen’s concerns, or, in the same vein, who recognize that there can be value in undisturbed land, or waters, or that intact ecosystems, with their healthy game and fish populations, also hold economic value in producing clean water, clean air, grazing, wildlife, flood or invasive weed control, all those elements that may not always add to the bottom line of corporate profit, but are the actual bottom line of life on this planet. I have no idea if these political leaders are willfully ignorant- the facts are out there, remember- or just refuse to consider information that does not jibe with what they prefer to believe. Or if they simply say these things hoping to garner votes and financial support. I don’t know. I just know that they sound angry, reactive, and ill-equipped to lead.

And this leads me to my question: Why is it that we as a people remember the great conservation leaders, the Theodore Roosevelts, the John Muirs, the Aldo Leopolds, Rachel Carsons, George Bird Grinnells, and we have, almost without exception, forgotten the naysayers, the men who railed against the creation of say, Grand Teton National Park, or the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Sipsey Wilderness in Alabama?

There have been men and women from all parts of the US, for over a century, who have expressed deep contempt for anyone who proposed protecting landscapes, wildlife, fisheries. These same folks prophesied economic doom for towns like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or Hatteras, North Carolina, if the surrounding lands were protected by law. Even now, as anyone can view the expanding human populations, the ever larger footprint of human endeavors, pushing back the hunting country, overwhelming the creeks, encircling the wildlife, they express contempt for anyone who would thwart what Bob Marshall once called “the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole Earth.” And no one remembers their names. Why not?