By Tommy Hough
Ansel Adams famously said in a 1983 interview, "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment." Unfortunately, that's the situation we environmentalists find ourselves in again. Elections, as they say, have consequences.
As revealed by the proposed declawing of the Endangered Species act in mid-January, and driven home last week by Congressman Jason Chaffetz's attempt to sell off more than 3.3 million acres of public land in 10 states, congressional Republicans and the Trump administration are joining forces to undo federal public lands policy and even drill in our National Parks – our nation's most sacrosanct places.
While finishing off any kind of tolerant pretense for conservation or public lands management on behalf of GOP lawmakers, these moves are entirely unprecedented in our nation's history.
Generations of Americans – Democrats and Republicans alike – have worked for well over a century to ensure responsible management of our public lands, and have sought to protect and enjoy them. In fact, it was President Lincoln who first set Yosemite aside for conservation in 1864, and President Theodore Roosevelt who crafted the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906. But now, led by Utah's Jason Chaffetz and Arizona's Paul Gosar in the House and Texas' Ted Cruz in the Senate, today's Republicans – beholden and blinded by special interests disguised as populism – want to undo the very idea of public lands.
The reasons for the sell-off? To "give" federal lands "back" to the states – as though states are at all equipped to manage the volume of public land being discussed, especially in the west. Managing public land for a variety of uses is what the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) do every day – whether it's for recreation, resources, or simply to be left alone as wilderness or habitat.
Not even James Watt, Ronald Reagan's notorious Interior Secretary, ever suggested anything on the scale of what is being proposed now, but congressional Republicans have been engineering these moves since they took over following the Tea Party wave in the 2010 midterms (again - elections have consequences). Until recently, the GOP always came up against an immovable object – President Obama. But those days are gone, and the floodgates for rollback policy are wide open.
While reasonable people can have their differences about how agencies do their management jobs – and I've been on the other side of the coin on this many times, especially while at Oregon Wild – there's no doubt our public lands are better off with oversight than without it. But when the BLM tried to enforce policy in the case of the Bundys, they had guns pointed in their face. Now the weight of the GOP and Trumpistan is siding with the Bundys over its own civil servants and public land.
Don't be fooled – despite the withdrawal of H.R. 621 by Congressman Chaffetz, the desire to sell off public lands and drill in National Parks has strong support in Congress, and there's nothing to stop it other than the voice of the citizenry. While those voices were heard last week by Chaffetz and others, the House GOP will find new ways to try to separate Americans from their public lands. This is just the beginning.
Like toothpaste from a tube, once we lose these lands we'll never get them back intact – and the precedent will be set for even more pillaging. What will they come for then? Our deserts? The Central Coast? The Redwoods? The Sierras? How big a bite will it be? The decimation of lifetimes of conservation efforts and the squandering of the legacy of John Muir could very well happen over the next two years unless we remain incredibly vigilant, and respond with the full weight of outrage at every attempt.
Trump and the GOP Congress know that's a level of intensity difficult to maintain, but as Ansel Adams sagely noted, "It is a terrible thing when we have to fight our own government to save the environment."
The Antiquities Act of 1906, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Wilderness Act of 1964 , the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, and at the executive level, the Roadless Rule of 2001 are some of the best conservation policies in place that enable public lands to be left as is. That's what Jason Chaffetz and Ted Cruz ultimately seek to undo. Remind your congressperson these and other environmental policies must remain in place, as is.
Vasquez Peak Wilderness photo by Tommy Hough
Notch Peak Wilderness Study Area photo by Michael Klein
Tommy Hough is a San Diego broadcast personality, wilderness and parks advocate, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He was a candidate for San Diego City Council in the 2018 election cycle.