Election 2016 - Some Thoughts
Following every election of a new administration there is a sense of trepidation of the unknown. The election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States has brought forth a stream of mixed and swirling emotions. Living in a strongly Republican area of the country I am hearing a lot of enthusiasm for the change that we will be seeing in Washington and in national policy. Personally I have found this state of affairs overwhelming and stressful since I have a variety of concerns and yes, I have to admit fears of what these changes may mean for the core values of the United States that I grew up in.
There is a lot of rhetoric being presented about racism, religious intolerance, voting rights, and other serious issues. One topic that is getting limited press coverage, and I admit falls lower on the survival scale of other topics, is the fate of our nation’s public lands and the agencies and people dedicated to their protection.
The Republican Party Platform includes as one of its goals;
Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states (Page 21 of the Republican Party Platform 2016)
Right now in the House of Representatives they are holding hearing on:
LEGISLATIVE HEARING ON:
- H.R. 866 (Rep. Diane Black), To achieve domestic energy independence by empowering States to control the development and production of all forms of energy on all available Federal land. “Federal Land Freedom Act of 2015.”
- H.R. 1484 (Rep. Mark Amodei), To direct the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior to convey certain Federal lands to the State of Nevada in fulfillment of the Nevada Statehood Enabling Act, and for other purposes. “Honor the Nevada Enabling Act of 1864 Act.”
These are just the opening volleys on what may develop into an all-out attempt to turn over public lands to individual and special interest groups.
I often hear the term “government land” used to describe public lands. This may be unintentional form of misnomer or perhaps propaganda. The government represents the people of our nation and as such serve as caretakers of the land for us all. That is why public lands are open for common use and not restricted for any specific group or interest group. Are there regulations that restrict certain activities on these lands? Yes, but their purpose is to preserve them for a variety of reasons including habitat, recreational use, resource management, tourism, water shed, etc. Each parcel has been designated for a purpose and the management is directed toward obtaining that goal or combination thereof. Most public lands were established through Enabling Legislation. A read of these laws will outline the mission and purpose of the protective status of the land.
If one looks back at the history of public lands protection, you will discover that many of these areas were abused and in many cases nearly destroyed through private ownership or focused resource removal. A prime example of this mismanagement of natural resources can be found near the doorstep of Washington itself. By the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the Southern Appalachian Mountains had been stripped clean of marketable timber. Rural agrarian communities were turned from historic farming to industrial economies almost overnight. Families that had depended on low impact natural resource harvesting and farming were forced to take jobs in timbering, mining, and small factories to feed and clothe their families. Following the Civil War large companies moved into the previously ignored mountain areas to reap the spoils of natural resources found there. Timber Companies bought up large tracts of land, in some cases swindling and legally maneuvering people out of their land rights, to harvest the steep mountain slopes of lumber. They were so aggressive in their quest for personal wealth that they built railroads into the mountains to quicken the removal of every stick of timber they could access. The result was land left unprotected and massive erosion resulting in the sliding of entire mountain sides wiping out communities. Limbs and branches with no value were left on the ground drying and become tinder for huge wildfires that spread for miles in North Carolina and Virginia during the early part of the 20th century.
This is just one example of why lands were placed under public protection. Throughout history once a price tag is placed on a resource and individuals gain access to those resources, the search for immediate profit far out weighs any thought of the future. The only reason we do not see this wholesale stripping of our natural areas today is due to public land protection and regulations of industry.
So whenever I hear about public lands being turned over to local interests, it sends shivers down my spine. Local interests are more susceptible and easily pressured to change use of such lands to meet short term financial needs or to fill the pockets of a few influential individuals.
In Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s address to the media following the election, he specifically stated that Federal Agents would no longer be harassing ranchers. This is a reference to the movement in the West symbolized by the Bundy family and their followers to make personal use of public lands. The Bundies owe the Federal Government (once again the people meaning you and me) over $1 million for grazing fees. The Bundies have been grazing their cattle for years on public lands for free refusing to pay these fees. Several times courts have ordered them to pay back fees and penalties. They continue refuse payment and continue to graze their cattle for free making personal profit for themselves and no one else. So evidently, attempting to collect those fees will now be termed harassment of ranchers. Federal land managers have been staying off these public lands due to the threat of armed supporters of the Bundies. Volunteers recently entered the area to assess resource conditions. What they have found is that the Bundy cattle are still grazing the land and have caused an incredible amount of resource damage.
This same movement, including two of the Bundy sons, is the one that took possession of the Mauhler Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Assessments are still being done, but damage to the refuge estimates are over $1 million dollars. I fear that such groups will be emboldened to take more actions that would endanger not only the resources protected, but the employees and volunteers who work in those areas.
This abuse of public lands for personal gain angers me to the core. With the result of the election we are facing the potential for more of this type of blatant exploitation of our public lands for political purposes.
There are also proposals within the Republican Party and the Trump Team to make it easier to fire Federal Employees. Newt Gingrich, a Trump adviser and potential Cabinet Member, has been very vocal in stating that this would be a high priority for the new Trump Administration.
On the surface this proposal would gain traction with many people following years of Federal workers being vilified in the media, by politicians, and portrayed as lazy and ineffective. I would often hear this rhetoric from my own father during my 30+ years with the National Park Service.
Removing employment protections could easily morph into making it easier to get rid of people who question or do not support political agendas and decisions. These abuses of power in the past are why these protections were put in place. Professional managers would be reluctant to stand up for what they know is right or dictated by documented policy to meet political expediency. It would be a challenge and take tremendous courage to stand up for natural resources or an ecosystem over economic short term gains.
There are many examples of how this could impact public lands. In the past managers have stood up to issues such as energy exploration and development, snow machine use, road development, water extraction, grazing of fragile habitats, and many others threats that would result the degradation of natural resources and the primary reasons these lands were identified for protection.
In my personal experience; a number of years ago a company wanted to build a coal generated power plant just below the Blue Ridge Parkway in part of the Great Valley in Virginia. Air quality in this region was already seeing significant impacts from such plants in far off Tennessee. Although there were many parties involved in fighting this proposal (that would have served a very small area of specific industries) local US Forest Service and National Park Service managers spoke out against the plan based on scientific data that showed the impacts it would have on the air quality and visibility in protected public lands. Some higher level managers in Washington did not want these managers to speak out, but they showed courage and determination in following through on their commitment to protect those special places put under their watch.
In some instances managers have sacrificed their careers with strong positions resulting in unwanted transfers and pressure to retire. We could see a sharp increase in pushing professional experienced people out of key positions.
I cannot help but believe that changes to ease the process for firing would be used as a threat and always be in the back of employees’ minds when making hard choice ethical decisions that could affect the long term future of public lands.
I am sure there are ways to improve on existing practices and policies in managing public lands. I hope that the new administration and the people of this great Nation are able to come together to make any such changes through an approach that includes a thoughtful view of long range impacts.