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December 1, 1998

Paradise Lost

[Editor's note: Woody Justice is out of town this week. In his absence, we are re-printing an earlier column to remind our readers that as the holiday season approaches, there is no better gift than the gift of preserving nature for future generations.]

by Woody Justice

As the population multiplies and the level of consumption rises, human-caused damage to the planet's ecosystem is intensifying. Efforts at preserving natural resources, though rarely more successful anywhere else than in the U.S., are increasingly stonewalled or compromised, or when enacted are too little and too late.

Politicians, dependent on huge bankrolls for soaring campaign costs, are amenable to doing "favors" for their favorite funders; the traditional media, more profitable with fewer staff (investigative journalism has all but disappeared), are eager to print advertiser-friendly stories provided by biased think-tanks. Special interests spin arguments and steer legislation while corporations continue converting God's Green Earth to something much less. We can't rely on our government to do what's right while running on autopilot. Unless the public servants hear a clamor from the public, they aren't going to serve the public's interests.

For example, take the Bryan Amendment to the Interior Appropriations Bill that was narrowly defeated in the Senate last September. This was a better-than-nothing measure that would have cut out some corporate welfare, namely reimbursing logging companies for road construction in National Forests. (This U.S. Forest Service policy contributes to below-cost timber sales -- racking up a net loss of more than half a billion dollars in 1996 alone.) The first vote on this amendment resulted in a 50-50 tie that could have been broken by our environmental Vice President had he been present instead of panhandling at some Democratic National Committee event. The second vote was 51-49 for business as usual. Richard Shelby was proud to help vote it down, despite his acknowledgments that "Every effort must be made to ensure the sustainable use of [America's natural] resources for future generations," and "It is important to maintain the integrity of our country's environment." (Sessions' office did not reply to my query, but we can probably guess what his choice was.)

The Wilderness Act of 1964 ordained areas set aside "where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor." Less than 2 percent of the lower 48 is "wilderness." How can anyone believe that there can be too much pristine Nature preserved for future generations -- let alone for the here-and-now purpose it serves to maintain a functioning ecosystem? (Similarly, how can anyone lobby against air that is too clean, water that is too pure?) The areas most suited for protection, of course, are public lands that haven't suffered the ravages of bulldozers and chainsaws. As these rarities become smaller and more fragmented, their ecological and esthetic value declines and the debate over saving them loses its significance.

Where there is money there is influence. Every enterprise relying on extraction or resulting in destruction has a coalition group and lobbyist. The multiple-use doctrine that they advocate limits harmless uses as it promotes ruinous ones. What if an individual's enjoyment of masterpiece paintings involved watching them burn? Or would we allow an entrepreneur to sell broken-off pieces of Mt. Rushmore under this paradox? It seems not to matter to Congress that mining, logging, grazing, and motorized recreation on public lands devalues it for those who seek the natural essence of wilderness.

(A particularly ironic twist is the Challenge Cost-Share Partnership. As corporate powers stifle efforts to rectify free and subsidized resource extraction, the American Recreation Coalition (ARC) is instituting a demonstration user-fee plan that will make matters worse. [Check out ARC's membership list -- heavily loaded with developers and representatives of the motor-sports and petroleum industries -- at http://www.funoutdoors.com/.] This confederacy of commercial interests has insinuated itself into a position to manage, evaluate, and report to Congress on the results of the program; ARC will also assist in crafting whatever permanent system is sure to follow. Concurrent with federal budget cuts for national parks and other public lands, this scheme purports to help fund "necessary" upgrades and maintenance. Their true agenda seeks to commercialize the outdoor experience -- by seeking corporate sponsors for and easier access to public lands -- and facilitate destructive uses -- by opposing taxes on motorized recreation products and restrictions on their use -- while low- impact users pay more for access to despoiled wilderness.)

Wise men bespeak the praises of wilderness; wise-users consume and leave it in ruin. Former U.S. Senator Clinton Anderson: "There is a spiritual value to conservation and wilderness typifies this. Wilderness is a demonstration by our people that we can put aside a portion of this which we have as a tribute to the Maker and say -- this we will leave as we found it."

Artist-photographer Ansel Adams: "The clear realities of nature seen with the inner eye of the spirit reveal the ultimate echo of God... The dawn wind in the High Sierra is not just a passage of cool air through forest conifers, but within the labyrinth of human consciousness becomes a stirring of some world-magic of most delicate persuasion. The grand lift of the Tetons is more than a mechanistic fold and faulting of the earth's crust; it becomes a primal gesture of the earth beneath a greater sky. And on the ancient Acadian coast an even more ancient Atlantic surge disputes the granite headlands with more than the slow, crumbling erosion of the sea. Here are forces familiar with the aeons of creation, and with the aeons of the ending of the world."

Author-conservationist Aldo Leopold: "He is the motorized ant who swarms continents before learning to see his own backyard... To enjoy he must possess, invade, appropriate. [T]he rudimentary grades of outdoor recreation consume their resource-base; the higher grades, at least to a degree, create their own satisfactions with little or no attrition of land or life. It is the expansion of transport without a corresponding growth of perception that threatens us with qualitative bankruptcy of the recreational process. Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind."

Fortunately Congress is in recess and no further damage is scheduled until next year. Your public servants were instructed by their Congressional leaders to return to their districts and gather input about the concerns of the people. Perhaps the self-proclaimed conservatives will be open to suggestions promoting conservation.


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