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A banner year for land conservation 

We have just lived through an historic year -- and I'm not talking about the fiasco in Florida. This year a wave of land protection has swept across the country. We haven't seen anything like it for a generation.

Consider this list of accomplishments: 1) Eleven national monuments have been established and two others have been expanded. 2) Another million acres has been added to the National Wilderness Preservation System. 3) A policy was devised to keep some 60 million roadless acres in our national forests in their natural condition. 4) Land acquisition funding was increased significantly. 5) Action was taken to limit snowmobile use in national parks, end gridlock in Yosemite and Zion National Parks, and restore the Everglades.

Not bad for 12 months.

The places protected in 2000 offer world-class camping, fishing, boating, hunting, birding and hiking. They offer us peace and quiet -- an increasingly rare commodity. I plan to take my family camping next year along Idaho's Lochsa River, near where Lewis and Clark traveled nearly 200 years ago. We'll be looking across vistas that look very much like they did when those explorers saw them, and thanks to the President's initiative to protect the remaining national forest roadless lands, there's a good chance my kids' children will enjoy the same vistas many years from now.

But the benefits extend far beyond recreation. Wild places harbor the cleanest watersheds, and a large percentage of the nation's drinking water, particularly in the West, runs off the public lands. These protected lands also scrub our air. They are vital to fish, wildlife and plants, including many that are endangered. These are places where archaeologists can learn about the past and biologists can find medicines for the future. Schoolchildren will visit these places and come away with a deeper understanding of the complexities of the natural world. Each of these pluses carries with it an economic benefit.

You may have heard some grumbling that these conservation efforts were "land grabs." They were anything but. These are lands that belong to all Americans. In fact, protecting these natural treasures fends off land grabs by those industries that want to exploit these places for commercial gain. As Theodore Roosevelt put it, "The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value."

The credit for all these achievements must be shared. President Clinton provided vital leadership, and at this point his conservation record is among the very best among U.S. presidents. Important roles also were played by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, and Vice President Al Gore. Many members of Congress, representing both parties, fought hard for land protection in 2000. Federal land managers deserve credit, too.

We hope that there will be a few more victories in the weeks to come. Hundreds of Idahoans have shown support for designating the Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands as a national monument. Efforts are continuing to protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska), Vermilion Basin (Colorado), and other special places.

I hope the progress can continue in the Bush administration. Traditionally, conservation has been a bipartisan issue, and we saw plenty of effort on both sides of the aisle this year as Congress passed wilderness bills and boosted funds for land protection.

I'm hoping that campaign talk about rolling back the roadless area policy and the national monument designations was just that: campaign talk. Once the new president settles into the Oval Office, I hope he will feel more inclined to be a good steward of the lands that our generation is supposed to pass on, in good health, to our children and grandchildren.

If Mr. Bush is tempted to try to reverse the momentum that has built up, he should remember the briar patches that lie down such a path. President Reagan stumbled into one such patch when he appointed James Watt as Interior Secretary and let him push for oil drilling in wilderness. Then in 1995, the new Republican Congress took another run at the environment. It was a failure.

The American people love their national parks and forests and the wildlife found there, and that love grows deeper every year as open space yields to steel, concrete and the whine of motor vehicles. We need to keep protecting our lands and urge the Bush team to join us in that effort.

Craig Gehrke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Boise, Idaho and is the Idaho Director of The Wilderness Society.

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