Over 100 years ago, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt said to the American people: Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Roosevelt took the issue seriously, as did members of Congress, and when he passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, he established a legal mechanism for future presidents to conserve land as well as making conservation a national bipartisan priority for decades to come.
Yet when Congress adjourned in December, it left in its wake an unprecedented amount of legislation designed to dismantle decades of laws protecting our public lands. These decades-old laws, passed under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, put the interests of the American people first, and politics second. We enter this New Year with Congress taking the opposite philosophy, and since this is an election year, we can likely count on more of it.
Here is a brief overview of some of the Great Outdoors Giveaway legislation that members of Congress are returning to Washington this month to work on:
• The “End of the National Monuments” Acts: Eight different bills have been introduced with the sole purpose of gutting the Antiquities Act (HR 302 – introduced by N.C. Congresswoman Elizabeth Fox – HR 758, HR 817, HR 845, HR 846, HR 2147, HR 2877, and HR 3292). All of these eviscerate the president’s authority and most seek to exempt certain states from having new national monuments designated in their borders. National monuments have proven to be economic generators wherever they are designated. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created in 1996, is good proof of this. Steve Roberts, owner of Escalante Outfitters, says “Escalante National Monument didn’t just help the economy, it is the economy.
• The “Great Outdoors Giveaway” Act: Introduced by Congressman Kevin McCarthy, HR1581 would eliminate the Forest Service Roadless Rule, one of the most commented upon and publicly supported conservation policies in Forest Service history. This bill would open 50 million acres of currently protected land to resource extraction. Here in North Carolina it would mean that 178,000 acres of public land would no longer be protected under the Roadless Rule, and that two of our Wilderness Study Areas, Overflow and Snowbird, would lose this congressionally designated status. Former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt testified that HR 1581 “… is the most radical, overreaching attempt to dismantle the architecture of our public land laws that that has been proposed in my lifetime.”
• The “30-million Acre Giveaway” Act: HR 2852, known as the “Action Plan for Public Lands and Education Act of 2011 and introduced by Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, would require that the federal government give away, free of charge, 5 percent of all federal land in each western state — an area equal in size to the state of New York. Billions of dollars in assets that belong to all Americans would be given to states without giving compensation to the rightful owners — the American people. This act would gut the key purpose of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, a bi-partisan statute enacted in 1976 that requires that federal lands be retained in public ownership unless determined to serve the national interest.
• The “Motorize our Wilderness Areas” Act: HR 2834, introduced by Michigan Rep. Dan Benishek, contains language that would effectively destroy the Wilderness Act by allowing motorized vehicles such as snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles, motorcycles, and motorboats in designated Wilderness as long as they are used for hunting, fishing, and shooting. This act would effectively destroy the values that many hunters and anglers actually seek in Wilderness and undermine the spirit, intent, and integrity of one of America’s unique legislative contributions to permanent land protection.
The list could go on. There are bills to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, bills to allow the Department of Homeland Security to take over all public lands on the border of Mexico and Canada, and bills to allow uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.
In the same speech Roosevelt told the American people, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us ... Moreover, I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few ... Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”
I think our patriotic duty this year might begin with writing our congressmen and giving them a history lesson and a call to action for protection of our natural resources instead of squandering them with these bills. And then get outside and enjoy our country’s beautiful forests and parks – they’re still some of the best in the world.