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

Feds to public: This land is OUR land, and we’re gonna make you pay

One of the goals I have for this site is to get people outside. For starters, it’s good for you. And just as important, when you see the outdoors for yourself you gain an appreciation for it. With that hopefully comes a desire to protect and preserve those great wild spaces for everyone.

But now comes a couple of moves from the geniuses in Washington — one inside the bureaucracy, another from Congress — that would discourage and  even punish people who go into public lands for recreational purposes.

So let’s break it down…

Careful there, shutterbug. That pic might cost you $1,000.

Careful there, shutterbug. That pic might cost you $1,000.

FOREST SERVICE AND PHOTO FEES

First, the U.S. Forest Service wants to charge you a $1,500 fee for a permit to shoot photos or videos on USFS lands. And if you’re caught shooting without a permit, you get a $1,000 fine.

Liz Close, a USFS wilderness director, told media outlets that the rule is designed to follow the 1964 Wilderness Act, which forbids commercial exploitation of wilderness areas.

I’m all for protecting wilderness. But there are several problems with this proposal.

For starters, it runs afoul of the First Amendment. Still images and video are all considered protected free speech.

Second, the rule seems pretty arbitrary and open to a variety of interpretations. Does a news organization doing a feature story (not breaking news, which the USFS says it will allow without a permit) constitute “commercial exploitation?” What about coverage of ongoing news stories in wilderness areas? Who decides that?

And what if the “exploitation” in question is from some nature blogger who has a couple of sponsors on his or her site? Does that poor devil need to pony up $1,500 to take a pic of a waterfall?

The Wilderness Act was designed to protect wilderness areas from commercial activity that would alter or destroy their timeless, wild characteristics. That’s why there is an absence of oil wells, strip mines, amusement parks, luxury hotels and other big-footprint operations in federally designated wilderness areas. It’s also why any forms of mechanical transportation are likewise forbidden.

A photographer or a video crew carrying their gear on foot will not have any more impact on wilderness than an ordinary backpacker on a multi-day trip. Likewise, the ambiguity of what constitutes “commercial activity” should not threaten the average person with a camera or a smartphone who wants to get some images of nature.

Outside Online reports that public outcry has caused the agency to delay final implementation until December, and has extended a public comment period. You can make your voice on this subject heard here.

You might see tents. But certain members of Congress see dollar signs.

You might see tents. But certain members of Congress see dollar signs.

CONGRESS PULLING A FAST ONE

At least we can give the USFS credit for being open about their new, albeit wrongheaded, rule. But Congress is trying to do something that may end up costing you, and lawmakers are doing it in such a way as to sneak it in under our noses.

As reported by The Adventure Journal, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is trying to slip House Resolution 5204 into a general appropriations bill, and he might be able to do it without so much as a single hearing.

What does HR 5204 do? Here’s the breakdown, as cited by The Adventure Journal:

• It would remove the ban on the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management charging for parking, picnicking along roads or trailsides, general access, dispersed areas with low or no investment, driving through, walking through, boating through, horseback riding through, or hiking through federal recreational lands and waters without using facilities and services, camping at undeveloped sites that do not provide minimum facilities, and use of overlooks or scenic pullouts. The bill replaces them with a single prohibition on fees “For any site, area, or activity, except as specifically authorized under this section.” The Western Slope No Fee Coalition says, “Since ‘this section’ authorizes fees for anything, that prohibition is meaningless.”

• The Forest Service and BLM would be allowed to charge day fees for entry to national conservation areas, national volcanic monuments, visitor centers, and anywhere that has a toilet within a half mile.

• Interagency passes, currently $80, would automatically go up in price every three years.

I’m wary of legislation that is passed without any debate or a hearing, but that’s what  is afoot here. It’s also exceedingly vague, basically allowing fees to wriggle into public land use based on what someone might want to do at the time. There are already fees in some wilderness areas, but most are free. HR 5204 could greatly expand the number of places where fees would be assessed.

If this bothers you, consider writing your congressman and senators quickly — as in within a week — as it’s likely to be part of a continuing resolution to be passed soon to keep the government from being shut down.

In both of these cases, it’s not really clear what policy goal is trying to be accomplished. But they both seem to have a monetary goal — finding new revenue streams. I could rail on policymakers for not having the courage to reform the nation’s tax code in a way that would address federal budget woes, but that is another topic for another day.

What it clear is that both of these initiatives hurt the cause of wilderness in that they cut off public access by way of creating new financial hurdles for the people who love wilderness the most. If policymakers want to find ways to properly fund and manage wilderness areas, there are far better methods to do it than by  feeing and fining the public for enjoying public lands.

Woody Guthrie famously penned the words, “This land is your land, this land is my land.” The feds seem to be saying it belongs to them, and not us. That’s a sentiment that needs to be corrected.

UPDATE: The USFS has clarified (changed?) its position on permits for news gathering organizations. Earlier it had said it would apply to news organizations unless footage was obtained in a breaking news situation. The Forest Service on Thursday told The Associated Press a different story: “The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment,” USFS chief Tom Tidwell said. “It does not infringe in any way on First Amendment rights. It does not apply to news-gathering activities, and that includes any part of the news.”

The Forest Service also said that the rule would not apply to professional or amateur photographers unless they were using “models, actors, or props or work in areas where the public is generally not allowed,” Outside Online reported.

This is all good news — and a sign of what a little pressure can do in terms of making sure the government listens to people. It’s still worth your time to make your feelings known by clicking on the link above concerning public comments on USFS policy on this matter.

Bob Doucette

The government shutdown and public lands: Deeper reasons why this matters

PARKSCLOSED

By now a bunch of people have weighed in with a ton of opinions related to this week’s government shutdown. You know the drill…

The tea party GOP is at fault for forcing this crisis…

Barack Obama and Sen. Harry Reid are at fault for “not negotiating.”…

Everyone in Washington is at fault because they all stink.

OK, whatever. Whole lotta views and finger-pointing going on, including some by me (I have family deeply affected by the shutdown) which won’t go anywhere near this space. That’s a promise.

Obviously, there are a ton of repercussions. Being outdoor-minded, one of the first I noticed is how this affects public lands. You know, national parks and stuff.

The refrain that I’ve seen is that “public lands belong to us; I don’t need the government to help me take a walk in the woods.” Or something to that effect.

You know what? That’s true. There isn’t much that can stop you from going into a national park on your own, shutdown or not. And please feel free to do so. It is, after all, your lands.

But that’s also not the point.

What is?

Livelihoods.

Lots of federal workers are being told they cannot report to work, and are not being paid. Depending on how long this drags on, that’s going to affect their households quite a bit. And before you drone on about “lazy government workers,” just stop. There are good, hard-working people in every sector, and they vastly outnumber the bad. Denigrating other people’s professions — and the service they provide YOU, the taxpayer — doesn’t do anyone any good. I’m grateful for the people who work to maintain and protect our public lands, and if you use those spaces, you should be, too.

Conversely, we should also feel some compassion for people who might not know how they’re going to pay their bills and put food on the table this month.

The “essential” workers are on the job, but they’re not getting paid, either. So those rangers, law enforcement officers and others who patrol public lands are working for you — for free. Hopefully that status changes soon, and hopefully they get their back pay.

But this goes beyond the government workers. Plenty of businesses exist within public lands, and those places have had to shut down, too. Hotels and lodges, restaurants, tour companies, and more; small business owners and their employees are getting hurt.

Closures of parks means fewer visitors to nearby towns. Businesses in those communities are going to feel the bite, and quick. Will they be forced to cut their workers’ hours? Lay people off? That possibility looms large.

And still there are others — outdoor/travel writers, guides and more — whose livings are tightly bound to legal access to public lands. They can’t afford to have their permits yanked by disobeying closure orders. So for future considerations, a lot of these folks are forced to bite the bullet now — and pray they can survive one hungry month (or more).

What’s my point? It’s this: Go beyond how the government shutdown directly affects you and your access to public lands. Think about the people whose lives are tied to these wonderful spaces; to the people who keep them safe; to the folks who build and maintain the trails you hike; to the heroes who save the lives of folks who get into trouble in the backcountry; to the researchers who help preserve the wildlife we long to see out in the bush.

Your access is not the main issue. The entire system is. This land is, indeed, your land. But it’s also my land. And everyone else’s. You should give a damn because a lot of the people charged with caring for it aren’t allowed to go to work, and the many others who make our stays enjoyable, fun and comfortable when we visit these great spaces are hurting.

I can’t tell you what you should do from here. But maybe you should think about doing a little more than “poaching the parks.” Call your congressman and senators. If you know folks who are off the job, show them some kindness. Write the president. Vote.

Because in reality, this ain’t just about you. We’re all in this together.

(One small side note: Plenty of people have already paid for permits to vacation in places like the Grand Canyon, and in cases of white water rafting, have been waiting for years and spent a lot of money. This really stinks for them, too; hard-earned money going down the drain. I feel for you.)

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Government shutdown could mean limited access to national parks, public lands

A congressional deadlock over government funding could mean a loss of access to and activities on many public lands.

A congressional deadlock over government funding could mean a loss of access to and activities on many public lands.

There has been a lot of talk in the news about how a government shutdown will affect the country, its public services, the economy and people’s jobs.

Just so you know, it will also affect some of the places you like to go outdoors.

If Congress does not break its current deadlock over government funding by Tuesday, there will be an impact on public lands.

The U.S. Department of the Interior recently put out a memo describing what federal government functions will and will not continue on public lands as a result of a government shutdown.

You can expect law enforcement duties will still occur in national parks and national monuments, as well as firefighting duties, coastal patrols and access to through roads.

But visitors centers will be closed, and anyone staying at hotels, lodges and campsites in the National Park System will have 48 hours to leave those places once a shutdown occurs.

A lot of other services (education programs, special permits for activities, etc.) will also be cancelled until Congress can come up with some sort of funding plan for the federal government.

So if you have any plans that include going into public lands (particularly NPS lands), watch this situation closely and plan accordingly.

To read the Interior Department memo, click this link.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088