Common Sense Democracy - Buy Now
Common Sense Democracy

Learn About CSD
Common Sense Democracy In Action
Environmental Activism
Christian Background
Articles & Presentations
Contact Clayton
Home

AMERICAíS PUBLIC LANDS AT RISK

Americaís conservation movement got itís start a little over 100 years ago. Teddy Roosevelt was president. We got the National Forest Service, the first wildlife refuges, several of our oldest national parks, and the Antiquities Act -- empowering presidents to designate national monuments -- became law. It was a great beginning.

Since then, the history of conservation has been on a general upward trend in terms of the quantity of our public lands conserved and also in the1quality of protection. In the early 1970s we saw another important burst of progress. We got the Clean Air act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the less well known but equally significant National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The backbone behind this hundred year record of progress has been one important thing. Conservation has enjoyed the support of the majority of Americans. Not all the people for all conservation proposals. But most of the people for most conservation proposals. That is why we have done so well.

There may be one other thing that jumps out at you about those to periods of concentrated progress. Both occured under Republican presidents. There is a long bipartisan tradition to conservation in America. That tradition, along with our public lands, is today under assault.

Unfortunately, today we are witnessing an historic rollback in conservation protections. For the first time since Teddy Roosevelt were are not only not protecting more land, we are removing land from protective status. The threat to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the best known example. This is, afterall, a National Wildlife Refuge that would become an oil field. That priority of oil over nature is also driving exploitation of our public lands across the lower 48 states as well.

From Wyomingís Powder River Basin, to Utahís redrock canyons, Californiaís Sequoia National Monument, Coloradoís Roan Plateau, and New Mexicoís Valle Vidal and Otero Mesa we are seeing our wide open public spaces becoming fields of exploitation. It is the most radical rollback in the hundred year history of American conservation. And itís our nationís energy policy that is driving the damage.

When I was in high school in the 1970s I bought my first gallon of gas for 25 cents. But soonthere were shortages and lines at the gas stations. I cussed when I first paid a dollar for a gallon. Those were the years when Americaís supply of oil peaked and began its decline. It was the time when oil became a major factor in our nationís security.

The experts tell us that the world supply of oil will peak within the next ten years. At the same time we have new economies coming on line. Places like China and India want their turn at the oil based economy. Economics 101 tells us what will happen when increased demand meets decreasing supply. The price of energy, like the history of conservation, will have its ups and downs, but the long term trend is going to be upward -- the price of energy will inexoribly increase.

Now, I donít know about you, but when Iím running out of something I need at home I usually begin doing two things. The first is I try to use a little less, to string out my supply. The second is I start looking for an alternative means of meeting that need. Itís common sense. But our countryís energy policy defies common sense.

But -- rather than conserving; rather than prioritizing investments in alternative and renewable sources of energy -- our government is trying to get the maximum amount of oil and gas out of the ground as quickly as it can. Some folks will make a lot of money out of this. But it wonít be the average member of the American public -- weíll get stuck with the bill.

This oil based madness is not only destroying wild places on our public lands. Itís also bad for our nationís energy security. Weíre always going to need some oil. Does it make sense to use it all up as quickly as we can? Energy is essential to any modern economy. Shouldnít we invest in alternative now so we can avoid turning the inevitable shortage into an economic crisis?

Why do we have an energy policy threatens our nationís long term economic security and is destroying America the Beautiful in the process?

Before we turn to the specifics of the assault on Americaís public lands itís important to set these special places -- the home of our natural heritage -- in the proper cultural context.

Americaís public lands are an embodiment of American democracy.

Consider, for a second, this document:

'When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one People to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of natureís God entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes... We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.'

Some might think it strange to feature in discussion of land conservation, a reading from the Declaration of Independence. But its actually the perf ect place to begin.

Notice what Jefferson does in the founding document of our country. He begins with nature -- Creation -- and the Creator. He moves from their to discuss fundamental human rights, the natural rights we derive from the nature of our species -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Creator, Creation, People. From there he moves to a last, clearly subsidiary, principle -- government 'deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed'.

Itís no accident that Jefferson puts nature at the heart of the founding of America. Nature was a vital concern of his. Jefferson was one of the nationís leading scientific minds of his day -- famous for having discovered a nearly complete mamouth skeleton on his property. One of the central reasons he sent Lewis and Clark across the vast land of the Louisiana Purchase was to learn about the land and the plants and animals that lived upon it. He purchased land in the state of Virginia in order to protect a natural bridge. Today itís a state ˇ park. Thomas Jefferson was, in many ways, the original American conservationist.

So the Declaration of Independence is one reason Americaís public lands are an embodiment of American democracy. But there are two others.

One has to do with the ownership of the public lands. The government does not own Americaís public lands. The people do. All of it. From the Arctic Refuge of far northern Alaska to the Everglades at the southern tip of Florida. Over 25% of the land area of the United States of America. We own these lands. We own them equally. And equality is a fundamental principle of democracy.

Another reason Americaís public lands are an emodiment of American democracy has to do with how they are managed. Remember the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mentioned earlier. This is the law that requires the federal government to do two things when it is making important management decisions regarding Americanís public lands. First, it must consider the best available science applied with 'in a multiple use framework. And second, it must inform and consult the American public -- government 'deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed'. Americaís citizens have the rights and responsibilities of ownership.

Letís look at NEPA. You may have at some time or another sent in a comment letter to the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management regarding an impending land management decision. That comment letter is a legal document -- a letter from one of the land owners to the hired land manager. NEPA requires federal agencies to consider what we have to say. Itís not like writing Congress, where our elected representatives can throw our letters in the trash if they want to. Comments sent to federal agencies as part of a NEPA planning process have standing in court.

Consider for a minute, the Superior National Forest in Minnesota. A few years back it completed the revision of its Resource Management Plan (RMP). This plan called for clearcuts in the forest along the border of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area. Seeing this some of the folks who participated in the comment periods were left perplexed and scratching their heads. They recalled that the best available science submitted to the Forest Service had suggested that it wasnít good for the forest to cut down all the trees. And, in addition, the overwhelming majority of the comments submitted had opposed the planned clearcutting.

NEPA gave the commenters standing in court. They sued, claiming the federal government had violated the law, failing to apply the best available science and the advice of the land owners embodied in the citizen comments. They won. The Forest Service was ordered to re-write that portion of their Management Plan.

So, the United Statesí public lands are an emodiment of American democracy for two fundamental reasons. First is the nature of the ownership. We own them. Equally. And equality is a fundamental principle of democracy. Second is citizen participation, which af terall, is the essence of democracy. Citizen participation is at the heart of public lands decision making.

When you take an action for the conservation of Americaís public lands you are taking a patriotic stand. There is nothing more patriotic than acting to protect the land on which our country was founded and continues to exist. And there is nothing more patriotic than participating in the democratic process that is the reason our country was founded to begin with.

You are a citizen conservationist; an American patriot.

Thank you.


Wilderness was the bedrock on which the American character was developed. In the centuries prior to the arrival of settlers from across the Atlantic the people of North America lived a life defined by their relationship with the land. For most Native cultures the relationship to place was central to their identity. The landscape that was their home was often considered sacred.

When Europeans arrived they found their cultural backgrounds challenged by the vast wilderness spread out before them. Simple survival was not to be taken for granted. Many paths, often overlapping, were chosen. There are three primary ones that define our Nationís relationship to the land even today, even in this room tonight. One path is of exploitation: we often take from the land with little or no regard for the consequences. Another path is more community - based. A recognition of our mutual dependence on each other for the means of survival and the pursuit of happiness. This path is the source of Americaís democratic heritage. The third path, where we recognize our physical and emotional dependence on the Earth and seek to preserve the natural processes of Creation, is one of stewardship and conservation.

Over the centuries Americanís have most often shown a preference for the paths of democracy or conservation. Unfortunately, the last few years have witnessed a dramatic shift in priority towards the path of exploitation, away from the path of democracy, and outright opposition to the path of conservation. The effort to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is exhibit A.

If the word pristine still applies to any wilderness left in Godís Creation, this is the place. The coastal plain of the Refuge is the summer home for numerous types of migratory birds. It is also the home of the 'Porcupine' caribou herd. The tens of thousands of caribou in the herd are utterly dependent on the refuge as a birthing and feeding ground. The ‘Gwitchin people of the Arctic have maintained a traditional way•of life built around the caribou for nearly as long as humans have lived in North America. The current administration would eagerly do great harm to all this for six monthís supply of oil and the money to be gained from the drilling.

While the decision on the Arctic Refuge justifiably gains headlines the public lands in the lower 48 states are being subjected to conservation rollbacks at the behest of oil and gas exploitation. A roll-call of that evidence begins in the state of Utah.

Early in 2001 Interior Department policy makers sent a memo to the personnel of the Bureau of Land Management working in its various regional offices within the State of Utah. This memo informed these public servants that henceforth, whenever a proposal relating to oil and gas development appeared on their desk it was to immediately become their top priority. The backrooms of the Interior Departmentís policy making offices were humming. In April of 2003 they produced two extraordinary documents.

On April 9 they announced a 'Memorandum of Understanding' with the state of Utah regarding an obscure portion of a 19th Century mining law known as RS 2477. RS 2477 states 'the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted'. It was repealed in 1976, with preexisting rights grandfathered in. The Interior Department memo allows local units of government and individual citizens to claim virtually any paths where cows have walked and people have moved as a place for potential highway development. This one is Salt Creek, claimed as a 'highway' by San Juan County. Salt Creek is in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. ' The Interior Deptís. memo generously allowed citizens into an RS 2477 decision only after the 'final' rule was published in the Federal Register for comment. There is a vast network of thousands of claims similar to San Juan Countyís waiting to be filed. Though the struggle continues, those whose morals value the stewardship of the land have so far been able to fend off most of the damage this exploitive regulatory maneuver was intended to inflict.

Two days following the RS 2477 fiasco the administration announced the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the State of Utah against the BLMís wilderness designation procedures, including those providing for public participation in wilderness inventories. It was an interesting case as the Federal Appeals court had thrown out nearly all of Utahís claims and remanded the case back to the district court where it had been left to die via inattention. The Interior Department revived and settled the case granting the St bate of Utah nearly everything they had sought and then applied the policy nationwide. As a result, the BLM will not recommend any more wilderness and any land the BLM had granted wilderness study status subsequent to 1983 would no longer have those protections. This means 2.5 million acres in Utah alone suddenly became available to the Bush administrationís priority of oil and gas proposals.

This exploitive anti-Creation policy also threatens other special places. One is the Roan Plateau in Colorado. Near the town of Rifle and just north of Interstate - 70, the plateau rises 3,000 feet above the Colorado River valley below. On top of the plateau are canyons, forested slopes, waterfalls, and trout streams which contribute to a thriving recreation economy built around hunting, hiking, and fishing. 40,000 acres of the plateau have been found to be wilderness eligible. Just below it is a noil and gas development which the Bush administration wants to expand onto the plateau. Here too decision makers are maneuvering to avoid support for conservation among a majority of the public.

In New Mexico there are two special places at risk. First Valle Vidal, a verdant wild land, donated to the American public by an oil company, treasured by local hunters, and now threatened by Washington DC policy-makers seeking to override local tradition and turn it into a coal bed methane field. Second is Otero Mesa, a vast largely undeveloped portion of the Chihuahua Desert. This desert grassland is a place of stark beauty which the Interior Department wants to turn into an oil and gas field. A development that is a threat to ranchers as well as wildlife. Of its 1.2 million acres over 520,000 have been found to have wilderness character.

What do oil or gas developments look like on the ground? They begin with exploration, where large thumper trucks with seismic surveying equipment crisscross the landscape leaving behind crushed earth. The next stage is drilling which requires a network of roads so that large trucks hauling drill rigs can be moved into place. After the drilling, the site is cased with pipe and cement and replaced by a wellhead. These typically last 20 - 50 years. There can be hundreds or even thousands on a single field. With the wellheads in place itís necessary to transport the product. This requires loud motors used to power 24 hour compressor stations in order to move the product through the pipelines. And finally, many drill sites have large ponds used to collect wastewater and drilling fluids brought to the surface.

The impact of these policies on our natural heritage is there to be seen by anyone who visits the land. What isnít so apparent is the damage that is being done to our nationís democracy. Here th Įe most disturbing example is the United States Forest Service. In January of this year they finalized new regulations allowing Managers to exempt management planning from the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA, as the law is known, insures that the public is informed of the environmental impact of, and alternatives to, the Plans of federal agencies. It also requires those Plans to be consistent with the best available science and with the input received from the public. The new regulations allow Managers to 'categorically exclude' the official 'Resource Management Planning' process from NEPA and set up an additional procedure which the Managers are required to conduct.V This new 'Environmental Management System' does not have the legal requirements for public input that are found in NEPA. To make matters even worse, the provisions of Plans established under NEPA are now deemed to be only 'guidelines' which the Managers are specifically empowered to ignore. These changes threaten to make public input into decisions regarding Americaís public lands more akin to the sham elections of the former Soviet Union than they are to Americaís Declaration of Independence and its assertion that governments derive 'their just powers from the consent of the governed'.

All of us here tonight have our reasons for wanting to preserve the remaining wild places representing Americaís natural heritage. Maybe itís simply to protect the land itself. Maybe itís so that it will still be here for our children and their children to experience. Whatever your own personal reason, it is wise to remember the words of Ed Abbey, 'Wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders.'

Among those defenders are all of us, in this room tonight. When we get to the last part of this presentation I will be inviting you to review the pledge sheet at the back of your packet. It is a small but real banner of democracy -- your chance this evening to say how you will participate in the conservation of Americaís natural heritage. I ask that each of you complete it and turn it in at the end of the evening.

In the words of Terry Tempest Williams, 'I believe that spiritual resistance -- the ability to stand firm at the center of our convictions when everything around us asks us to concede -- that ou ýr capacity to face the harsh measures of a life, comes from the deep quiet of listening to the land, the river, the rocks. There is a resonance of humility that has evolved with the earth. Home work is required, a participation in public life to make certain all is not destroyed under the banner of progress, expediency, or ignorance. We cannot do it alone. This is the hope of a bedrock democracy, standing our ground in the places we love, together.'


There is a strategy behind the exploitation of Americaís public lands. Itís a stealth strategy, one designed not to be readily visible. So to help clarify matters, Iíve given it a name: Dump Democracy.

This Dump Democracy Strategy has three primary tactical vehicles by which it is implemented. Theyíve each got a name as well.

The first tactic in the Dump Democracy Strategy is deception.

Today we have things such as the 'Healthy Forest Initiative'. A law that claims to protect communities from forest fires when, in fact, it spends most of its resources deep in the forest, furtherest away from the communities, facilitating the logging of many of our oldest and largest trees -- those least vulnerable to forest fire. The 'Healthy Forest Initiative'.

And then there is the 'Clear Skies Act'. A proposed law that purports to reduce air pollution when, in fact, it would allow more pollution than the law it is intended to replace -- the 'Clean Air Act'.

Deception. That is the politest word available to describe the first tactic in the 'Dump Democracy' strategy.

Second is obfuscation.

Here let us refer back to RS 2477. As noted the rights remaining from this ancient and repealed statute have been grandfathered in. Theyíre protected by federal regulation. It used to be that a highway was defined as something that had been constructed and maintained prior to 1976 and it went from one particular place to another. But the regulations have undergone two critical changes.The first announced on Christmas Eve and the secondannounced late on a Friday afternoon in early April -- obviously times chosen to obtain the maximum public exposure for these important changes to public lands regulations.

Under the new regulations a road is now any place with a definable center line for which someone will sign an affidavit stating that they or others travelled over this place prior to 1976. A trail or cow path will do. Or, even a creek, such as Salt Creek in Canyonlands National Park.

Congress passes laws that tell the Executive Branch wha t to do. The Executive Branch writes regulations that determine how it will implement the laws. Changes in regulations can significantly impact the effectiveness of the law.

Do you know what the federal register is? How often do you read it?

The Federal Register is the place where the government prints its regulations -- small type, single spaced, three columes on each page. If youíre having trouble going to sleep at night get your hands on a copy and start reading it. In ten minutes youíre guaranteed to be snoring.

You can hide a lot of damage in the Federal Register. Not many people know about it, fewer still have the time to read it.

Obfuscation.

The third tactic in the 'Dump Democracy' strategy is suppression.

This one brings us back to the National Environmental Policy Act -- the law requiring land management agencies to inform and consult the People.

Letís recall how the new U.S. Forest Service Management Planning regulations have given Forest Service Managers the option of replaced the NEPA process with a new Environmental Management System -- a process without the fundamental guarantees found in NEPA. These regulations also seek to make implementing the plans made under NEPA an option for Forest Service Managers.

And then there is the recently passed Energy Bill. This law tells the Bureau of Land Management that it doesnít have to comply with NEPA when it wants to expand existing oil and gas fields. Thus, the gas field in New Mexicoís San Juan Basin -- controversial for years -- will now be expanded without the benefit of the public consultation required by NEPA.

Not satisfied with avoiding NEPA, there is a new attack on democracy being contemplated by Rep. Richard Pombo of California. Mr. Pombo is the Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Resources Committee. He is concerned that there are too many lawsuits filed under NEPA. So he has established a Task Force to look for ways to change NEPA so as to reduce the number of lawsuits. Itís an interesting Task Force -- hearing more witnesses in opposition to NEPA than those in support and sometimes offering significantly less advance notice for witnesses in support than is given those in opposition.

Letís consider its underlying purpose for a minute -- to reduce the number of lawsuits. If one were really concerned about reducing lawsuits, wouldnít it be better to focus on ways to get the federal government to do a better job of obeying the law rather than looking for ways to change the law? If we make changes reducing the oppor tunities for lawsuits under NEPA what weíve really done is reduce the ability of American citizens to force the federal government to obey the law which, in this case, means forcing the federal government to listen to the People.

Suppression -- silencing the voice of the people and enabling the government to act without the consent of the governed.

Not only are they whittling away at America the Beautiful on our public lands, they are also whittling away at Americaís democracy. Cutting down our trees and cutting out our rights.

This Dump Democracy strategy raises two fundamental questions. Why are they doing it this way? And, what can we do about it?

They are doing it this way because of a reality referred to way back at the beginning. The backbone ofthe American Conservation Movement has been the support it has enjoyed -- year in and year out -- from the majority of Americanís. If your interest is in the exploitation of Americaís natural heritage, rather than its conservation, then you have a fundamental problem. In the long run, the American people are not going to stand for it. So if you want to have long term success in exploiting the public lands, then you will need to cut the American people out of the process.

So what do we do about it? Fortunately their strategy points at their fundamental weakness. Us. We the People have been effective over the last hundred years. Little meetings and big meetings. One letter and one voice at a time, accumulating.

So how do we stop them. Weíve got to do - more work. Yes, weíve got to reach out in our communities and inform our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Write letters to the editor. Gather signatures on petitions. Hold house parties. Show videos at our churches and before civic groups. Send in those comment letters. Attend public hearings.

The salvation of America the Beautiful is in American democracy. The land and the people united. Yes, itís you who will save our forests and our deserts and our lakes and streams. Together, patriotic American conservationists can save Americaís public lands.

As Abraham Lincoln said, 'Let us have faith that right makes might, and, in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty.'

Clayton Daughenbaugh
Sierra Club, National Conservation Organizer


Learn About CSD - CSD In Action - Environmental Activism
Articles & Talks - Contact Clayton - Buy the Book - Home