NATURAL HERITAGE THREATENED
I live in Illinois. Yet, among my son's first steps were those taken warily on the red slickrock in Utah's wild canyon country. That fact was no accident. My wife and I had found a spiritual solitude and sustenance in those largely unspoiled acres of God's creation and we wanted our first son to gain those benefits from the beginning of his new life.
Our walk with Luke on those rocks was a journey of discovery. He was tenuous, but at home. He explored. He played. He showed us lizards and red dirt. He learned you can't dig in rock.
We have returned again and again, now with Luke's younger brother Sam. On one of those trips we walked with two others, more experienced with cross-country hiking, to help complete a citizens' inventory of lands potentially eligible for wilderness designation. Luke, still loving the red rock and dirt, developed a painful fascination with cactus. Sam rode in a carrier on my back. My wife Lisa pulled the needles from Luke's arm. The land we helped survey made it on to the map. The map meant that land stood a chance of remaining just as free for Luke and Sam's children. That chance may now be gone and that makes me sad -- and angry. My future grandchildren have been betrayed by a deceitful, backdoor political deal.
Have you ever known anyone to conspire with someone who wanted to take their family's property in order to help them get it against their siblings' will? That is what the Bush administration asked the State of Utah to do. The wilderness lands in Utah are public lands, owned by the American people, and managed on our behalf by the federal government. According to the Governor of Utah the Department of the Interior and the Justice Department both approached him to file suit seeking to block the Department of Interior from implementing its wilderness inventory process -- a process mandated by Congress. Contrary to the desires of the majority of its residents, the State of Utah had tried this once before --and lost. But now the Bush administration added a new twist. In addition to asking to be sued, they also agreed in advance not to defend the lawsuit, but to immediately settle it. There was, of course, no public participation sought or allowed in the decision. On April 11 the deal was done.
So what do I tell my son? How do I explain that the land our family loves, which we have worked to protect, may no longer be there for his children because the president whom we elected sought a way to get around the law which he was sworn to uphold? How do I explain that our commitment to democratic procedure -- participating in the inventory process, asking our elected representative to sponsor legislation to protect the lands the inventory found wilderness eligible -- has been squashed by the very people who are supp'osed to protect it?
Perhaps I could point to the Declaration of Independence which refers to "unalienable Rights" granted by the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" and says that "to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed." Perhaps I could agree with the lessons my son has learned from the land -- how the rock supports the dirt, the dirt supports the trees, and the trees support the birds -- and tell him that American's working together can eventually defeat the tyranny of an arrogant government. I will certainly be setting that example for him to see.
The process cynically shut down by the Bush administration allowed for sizable elements of citizen participation in our government's decision making. Just as I had, others participated in the inventorying which led to the Interior Department's consideration of these lands for wilderness designation. Provisions were made for American's of all points of view to provide formal comment on management plans. Citizens in Illinois gained the support of their senator, Richard Durbin, who has introduced legislation to protect this land. Though the Department of the Interior has sough to circumvent it all we will continue the struggle. I have faith that, in the end, the people will rule and this portion of God's creation that remains wild in America will be preserved.
appeared in the Charleston (IL) Times-Courier on April 20, 2003