Tuesday, May 6, 2014

All the land you’ll ever own – if you can keep it

“Here is your country – do not let anyone take it or its glory away from you. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skim your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance. The world and the future and your very children shall judge you accordingly as you deal with this sacred trust.”   
    ~~  Theodore Roosevelt, 1913.

After the 1789 Constitutional Convention finished its work, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government had been established by the newly signed document. Franklin’s famous response was: “a republic if you can keep it.”

Fast forward a couple of hundred years and another landmark juncture of the creation of the American nation is reached. Passage of two federal laws: the Federal Land Management Policy Act and the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act completes the core legal structure for the great national public estate of lands and waters. And what has been established by these documents – a Great American landscape treasury if you can keep it.

‘Keeping it’ is the conservation challenge of the 21st Century. For our shared estate of national lands and waters holds immense monetary value and ambitious people spare no effort to legalize the robbing of it.

Are public guardians asleep in their watchtowers?

From the first pilgrim’s footstep onward we newly minted Americans have used the land for sustenance, industry and prosperity. The WAY in which we use our natural resources, however, has often been nothing more than a robbery of future generations for the satisfaction of the present. Theodore Roosevelt called this “skinning the land.”  He rallied a strong political movement over the 25-year period from 1887 to 1912 to break the robber baron trusts and preserve a large federal estate from spoilage.

The concept of ‘conservation’ was born from this Gilded Age movement: the using of resources in such a way as to preserve their value across generations – ‘wise use.’ Please note that use of resources is organic to the conservation idea. But the outcomes of the way in which we use land and water have been the sticking point in every resource political battle since. Always the question: what does the future nation of American people get to keep out of each withdrawal from our national resource account?

Two polar land ethics have evolved among Americans consistent with our Western dualistic worldview. One is the age-old “get-all-you-can-as-fast-as-you-can” ethic of the industrial Skinners. For them any incremental cost paid to preserving resources for the future is just an expense item and an unwelcome reduction of profit.

Against this contra-ethic stands a land ethic of community permanence best described by Aldo Leopold: "A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

Advocates of both ethics will use natural resources to support our civilization. But one ignores the future while the other plans for it.

As I have written before, the creation and preservation of our Great American Commons is the sole national edifice that distinguishes Americans from all other nations on Earth. Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold were not speaking of an inconsequential national problem.

Past generations of American hunter conservationist were energetic even ferocious in their defense of keeping newly created national forests, wildlife refuges and monuments in public hands.  Unfortunately our contemporary American generation appears to be about as protective of their public assets as a drunken sailor is of his wallet.

I have finally come to the sad conclusion that most hunters and anglers simply don’t deserve their public estate inheritance. They would be justly served if our national forests and BLM prairie lands are sold off, and locked up for the exclusive enjoyment of a gang of super-rich land masters. An elemental truth applies: “you don’t deserve it if you will not fight for it.”

We’ve kept our republic for 224 years but the metaphorical King seems to be creeping back while the citizenry keeps their nose pressed against a digital fantasy screen.

If the outdoorspeople of today were worthy of their ancestors they would be outraged at the current political moves by so-called conservative politicians to turn federal lands over to states where the property can be privatized. Does anybody vote such politicians out of office anymore?  Instead, we hear barely a whimper of protest. Do today’s heirs of the Republic think they can sleep through their slice of history without being convicted for their dereliction?

We Americans make a big deal of being ‘free.’ But what does freedom mean if you have no open spaces in which to roam and exercise actual power of being free?

Private ownership of land is a basic cultural norm of our American way of life. But only a tiny fraction of Americans can own, or ever hope to own, any substantial amount of rural land. Public land is all the land we will ever own – ever – for all the remaining millions of us.

Of course 95 percent of the American people don’t know such a thing as public land exists. They have some sense of a national ownership of national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite but even there they are vague on the details. The recent Cliven Bundy affair in Nevada produced enough mainstream press coverage to plant a small seed in the public mind; but don’t count on that to bear any political fruit.

So here we have a nation of people who don’t know they are shareholders in a public estate. And then we have a generation of hunters and anglers who are either oblivious to the real threat of loss, or incredulous that the threat is real, or too cowardly to confront the aggressors. What could go wrong?

The Great American Land Robbery now in progress shows itself with several faces – here is a short list:   {caveat: everything you are about to read is perfectly legal – or will be by the time it takes place.}

State – Federal Land Grab -- The Republican National Committee recently passed a resolution endorsing proposals to turn federal public lands over to Western states. Utah already has passed a state law for such an action and other red-state legislatures have bills in progress. State ownership will be nothing but a pass-thru account to a massive sell-off on a scale not seen since the Oklahoma Land Rush.

No More Public Land Choke Collar – Bills in state legislatures, i.e. Montana, to ban state fish and wildlife agencies from acquiring new lands for wildlife management and public hunting -- much better that such lands be owned by zillionaires who are the only buyers who can afford current inflated land prices.

Antiquity Act Attacks – A new bill in Congress would greatly diminish power of the President to designate new monuments, etc. This Act was one of Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite tools for upgrading the public estate.

Land Skinner Bills – A new batch of recent state and congressional bills would dictate increased logging and drilling on public lands regardless of environmental and economic harm.

Unequal Land Exchanges – back room political deals to force federal resource agencies into land exchanges that give billionaire landowners power to acquire vast land empires while trading away public hunting and recreation opportunities.

Dirty-is-Better Politics – Attacks on EPA, Clean Water Act and any other law or regulation intended to protect air, water and land from industrial pollution.

Human-Caused Climate Change – It’s real, and our generation at this time is the last chance for humanity to avoid the worst of coming disasters. What is valid for the planet as a whole is exponentially more instructive for keeping wild habitats fit for use by large game and a variety of wildlife.

Self-Government is hard to do. Human nature naturally seeks the comfortable and avoids the difficult. Being a citizen of a Republic, therefore, is the worst thing that can happen to the typical human – with the exception of not being a citizen of a Republic.  Hunters and anglers should consider the alternatives before deciding the Great American Commons is not worth fighting to keep.

This column is not intended as an alarm call, not even a warning. I’m really just pointing out that our grandchildren and their descendants will despise us if we are the prodigal generation that squanders their Great American Commons birthright.

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