As Americans, regardless of our descent, we share as our greatest inheritance, both material and spiritual, the gift of our federal public lands. Most of us can readily name a piece of ground sacred to us as individuals that belongs to every soul in the country: Yosemite, the Everglades, Acadia, Hot Springs, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, the Smokies.
Most federal lands, while held in public trust, are only loosely protected. They can be used for private profit—for mining, drilling, logging, ranching and recreation, depending on the landlord, whether it be the BLM, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or National Park Service. Only designated wilderness areas are conserved to be the place where, in Margaret Murie’s words, “the hand of man does not linger.” These constitute less than 5 percent of the landmass of the United States.
The biologist E.O. Wilson has argued that—on a planet fighting for its life, with species going extinct at 100 to 1,000 times their natural rate, the lungs of the planet seared by global warming, the seas, the rivers and the soil losing their capacity to regenerate—we now should be devoting half the surface of the earth to nature so that we may save the lives of as many species of plants and animals as possible, including our own. To make life possible beyond the end of this century we need to slow the rate of global warming; reverse the advance of desertification; and restore the conditions in which life, and individual lives, can persist and thrive.
Mr. Wilson’s proposal has not been mentioned during public debate among policymakers in the United States. Instead, a great fog machine has been set to work in the West, where the federal share of land ownership is close to 50 percent and vested interests itch to develop federal land at the lowest possible cost for the maximum possible return to the shareholder. Just when we need to learn how to restore natural capacity, not just in the West but the East, North and South, we see instead an attack on the existing protection for federal lands and hear a call for the sell-off of the land itself to individual states for eventual sale to private owners.
Not one of those who call for auctioning off our collective inheritance has in mind the purpose of conservation, regenerative grazing, organic agriculture or even the creation of more opportunities for nonmotorized recreation, which now generates more jobs and income than do traditional extractive industries. The fog machine, purporting to represent the rights of the individual versus the overly powerful state, conceals that the benefits will accrue to only a few, very few, individuals at the expense of us all and our future.
This is the time to safeguard our material and spiritual inheritance. We need not sell off what we have, but rather preserve more of nature in more parts of our country so that we may also restore and revive the health of our human communities and the planet as a whole.
This story first appeared in the Fall 2017 Patagonia Catalog.
September 30 is National Public Lands Day
Your public lands are still under threat. Contact Secretary Zinke and remind him why wild places are the soul of this country. Text DEFEND to 52886 or click the link below.