The peril facing public lands: How lawmakers want to sell off America’s natural heritage

Kit Carson National Forest, as seen from the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in New Mexico. Beautiful public lands.

Kit Carson National Forest, as seen from the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area in New Mexico. Beautiful public lands.

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Certain memories never leave you. They make an impression — hopefully for the better — that doesn’t just bring a grin to your face, but becomes a part of the fabric of who you are.

I’ve got a lot of those. Many times, they build on each other, sort of in the way that a series of short outings becomes a longer life journey that takes you where you were always meant to go. It’s a satisfying feeling when you encounter one of those moments, then look back and realize how the events of your past led you to that amazing point in time.

That happened to me about nine years ago on a backpacking trip to northern New Mexico. There were five of us there, and we spent the day hiking up to a high alpine lake perched on the lower slopes of Wheeler Peak. Tall stands of evergreens and aspens were all around, carpeting the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area, a patch of wild land that is part of the sprawling Kit Carson National Forest.

I was first up that morning, crawling out of my sleeping bag and lighting my stove to cook a little breakfast. The rest of the gang was still trying to get a few more minutes of sleep before we’d head up to the highest point in New Mexico, then march back down the hill to civilization.

As I was boiling my water, I looked to my right and there they were — a female bighorn sheep and her lamb, staring at me, then casually easing their way up the slope to investigate our little campsite. They seemed completely unconcerned about the presence of people — this was their land, their home, I guess, and they’d probably seen folks like us come and go many times. They came so close that I felt I could have stood up and scratched mama behind the ears, though I know that would have never happened. Still, when you live in a community measured in the tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, real wildlife encounters like that aren’t all that common. Not with creatures like these.

We made a lot of memories on that trip, and yeah, we did bag Wheeler’s summit on a bright, bluebird day. But that morning in camp stuck with me more than anything.

That encounter exemplifies the value of public lands. We were well within the confines of New Mexico, but by law, that national forest and that wilderness area belongs to all of us. The same is true of many other places across the West, and indeed, the entire country. Some plots of land were meant for individual landowners. But some, by their very nature, are just too precious to sell off or give away. They belong to everyone.

Unfortunately, that value — one that was so strong in the hearts of conservationist heroes like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, and still strong with the public at large — is waning in the houses of power.

In Utah, politicians there — backed by lobbyists representing energy and mining interests — are passing laws demanding that the federal government cede those public lands to the states. Utah actually set aside $2 million to sue over it. And the sentiment behind that is only growing.

Changing political tides on the national level are beginning to mirror Utah’s model. In March, the Senate passed an amendment (Senate Amendment 838) to a piece of legislation that would authorize selling or giving away huge quantities of public lands — those in national forests, wildlife refuges, and tracts owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Basically any federal land not already claimed by national parks or national monuments. The amendment passed 51-49, mostly along partisan lines, with three Republicans voting against it.

The measure was advanced with the ever-popular arguments of affirming states’ rights, shrinking the federal government and closing budget holes, but the reality is far more opportunistic. Forest Service and BLM lands are filled with places that have yet to be explored for oil, gas, rare earth metals, coal and other exploitable resources that any number of companies would love to extract. Billions could be made, though that doesn’t necessarily take into account the billions already being earned by people whose livelihoods depend on tourist dollars from Americans and foreigners itching to take in the wonders of the country’s vast, wild spaces, some $41 billion a year according to The New York Times. All told, that supported some 355,000 jobs.

I don’t have a problem with people wanting to earn a living, or really make a go at hitting it big. But when you’re talking about the industrialized extraction of natural resources, there is a huge and often permanent cost.

Matterhorn Creek in southwestern Colorado. It's pretty, but those waters are fouled by mine tailings.

Matterhorn Creek in southwestern Colorado. It’s pretty, but those waters are fouled by mine tailings.

In another favorite mountain haunt of mine, north and west of Wheeler Peak in southwestern Colorado, is the Matterhorn Creek Basin, a drainage that slopes downhill from Matterhorn Peak, Wetterhorn Peak and a large collection of other, lesser mountains that make up the area’s dramatic, primordial landscape. This place is drop-dead gorgeous, but I can’t filter water there for drinking or cooking, at least not in many of the creeks and streams flowing to the south. Old, small-time mines that are long abandoned still taint the watershed with mine tailings, making the water there unfit to drink. The San Juan Range is pockmarked with gorgeous places just like Matterhorn Creek Basin that are beautiful to look at, but traversed by waterways permanently spoiled by mines of yore.

If you go out east, in Appalachia, or north, near Butte, Montana, you can see much bigger scars on the land. Strip mines, pit mines, and mountaintop removal have all done a number on these places. In my home state of Oklahoma, in an area dubbed Tar Creek, lead and zinc mines left behind noxious chat piles the size of small ski hills, fouling streams and giving local children lead poisoning. Collapsing mine tunnels threaten to swallow buildings whole. It got so bad that the entire area was declared a federal Superfund site, and two towns — Picher and Cardin — were bought out, their residents moved and businesses closed. There were booming times in that corner of Ottawa County decades ago, but now just a couple of polluted ghost towns remain.

Huge chat piles in Picher, Oklahoma, part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The chat piles are contaminated with lead and zinc mine tailings, which forced the abandonment of Picher and nearby Cardin a few years ago because of lead poisoning concerns. (Northwest Arkansas Community College photo)

Huge chat piles in Picher, Oklahoma, part of the Tar Creek Superfund site. The chat piles are contaminated with lead and zinc mine tailings, which forced the abandonment of Picher and nearby Cardin a few years ago because of lead poisoning concerns. (Northwest Arkansas Community College photo)

These are just a few tales from the dark side of harvesting natural resources from the ground. But no matter. Many states are hungry for economic development, and the lands they’d sell off are out of sight and out of mind to politicians in the big cities and manicured suburbs where most of their votes and donors come from. No one knows much about Matterhorn Creek’s spoiled waters because almost no one lives nearby, and getting there takes a little work. I just wish I could show it to them.

I checked a roll call of the Senate vote to approve this particular measure, and not surprisingly, both my senators were in favor of it. I didn’t bother writing Sen. Jim Inhofe. I just didn’t see the point. He’s the guy best known as the Senate’s chief climate change denier, and recently brought a snowball into the Senate chambers to prove that climate change wasn’t real. Conservation isn’t real high on this guy’s list of priorities.

I’ve heard from friends who know Sen. James Lankford, and they say he’s a reasonable man, one who will listen to others’ ideas. So I sent him a message last week. I’m still waiting for a response.

A scene from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma. The refuge is not only home to rugged peaks like this one, but herds of American bison like the ones in the foreground. Wildlife refuges are among the federal public lands that could be sold off if SA 838 is enacted.

A scene from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma. The refuge is not only home to rugged peaks like this one, but herds of American bison like the ones in the foreground. Wildlife refuges are among the federal public lands that could be sold off if SA 838 is enacted.

What I’d like to tell them is that while Oklahoma doesn’t have nearly as much federal public land as many western states, we do have amazing tracts of broadleaf and pine forests in the hills of the Ouachita Mountains (home to the Ouachita National Forest). Within the crags of the Wichita Mountains (where a U.S. wildlife refuge is found) there is an amazing biodiversity that surpasses any zoo. Buffalo, elk, coyotes, eagles — so many creatures in such a rugged, picturesque and special little realm. Do these guys really want to put these places up on the auction block? Have they ever been there? Do they even care?

Conservation has its roots in places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, locales so impossibly gorgeous that they’ve been declared national treasures by men and women far wiser than me. Born from that sentiment was a system of public lands that helped preserve vast acreages of wild spaces that are, many times, no less impressive, places like Wheeler Peak, the Ouachita National Forest, or the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Conservationists gave me the ability to camp in a New Mexico alpine forest, deep within the folds of a protected wilderness area where I could bask in that national treasure and share a breakfast moment with a couple of curious bighorn sheep. Hike in to Lost Lake, and you can see that, too.

That’s the beauty of public lands. My experiences can be yours, too. Or anyone else’s. These places belong to all of us. So please don’t tell me that they’re for sale.

Bob Doucette

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4 thoughts on “The peril facing public lands: How lawmakers want to sell off America’s natural heritage

  1. I heard the story on NPR about this. It is scandalous.
    We have so much natural gas in the US that we will soon be exporting it. Why waste the wilderness? The EU would kill for gas this cheap, or at least bow down to Putin.
    I would advise you to write your non-receptive Senator anyway. He only hears from people who agree with him, maybe he needs another perspective on things.
    I live in Mass and my politicians generally hold positions I agree with. But I still send the occasional email just to make sure they’re not just hearing from their big donors.

  2. Great write up, thank you for sharing the information. I get a little depressed over the struggle between money, resources, taking and giving. I know where I stand but it’s hard to compete with millions of dollars…

    • That’s where a lot of us are. I really believe the key to stopping this is a grassroots movement in Western states to hold their lawmakers accountable. One thing politicians understand is votes.

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