Maybe you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but like every American, you carry a deed to 635 million acres of public lands.
That’s right. Even if you don’t own a house or the latest computer on the market, you own Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and many other natural treasures. It’s one of the greatest benefits of being an American, and it’s one reason we are celebrating Great America Outdoors Week.
Starting with President Teddy Roosevelt, you can thank leaders from both parties over the decades for the privilege. But this benefit is in danger of being sharply cut back. Congress has started debating a number of bills that would allow oil companies, the timber and mining industries, and other special interests to turn many of these special places into profit centers.
I am most concerned about H.R. 1581 (and its Senate counterpart, S. 1087), not-so-fondly known as “the Great American Giveaway” bill. Introduced by Congressman Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the third-ranking Republican in the House leadership, it would eliminate protection for more than 60 million acres of your land. For example, 4.4 million undeveloped acres in California’s national forests, in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere, would become eligible for road building and logging.
Recently, two members of my staff flew over hundreds of acres of Sierra Nevada public lands, including ecologically invaluable old growth forests, that would be exposed to roads and logging if H.R. 1581 became law. From an aerial view, the difference between lands logged and lands preserved is stark. When we tear down lands we borrow from our grandchildren, getting them back is near impossible.
Take this example: the Bodie Mountains, near Lake Tahoe, would be open to gold mining interests that have been lobbying to develop and open pit gold mine next to this historic ghost town and wildlife haven. Also at risk would be spectacular areas that you own up north along our Lost Coast.
It makes no sense. At a time when we need places where we can escape the rat race and find peace and quiet, we should not be industrializing them. Many experts point out that outdoor recreation is increasingly important for jobs and economic development and a great way to help us fight obesity and other health problems.
But there is much more at stake than world-class recreation—kayaking, camping, fishing, birding, hiking. Our national forests, for instance, provide drinking water for more than 123 million Americans. The lands that all of us own also scrub the air, making it cleaner, and help us combat climate change by absorbing and storing carbon. They also provide habitat that fish and wildlife need if they are to survive.
Among the strongest opponents of this legislation are the men and women who make a living in the recreation and tourism fields. The outdoor recreation industry supports nearly 6.5 million jobs and contributes $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy. Rural communities need these jobs—ones that are not subject to boom-and-bust and that cannot be outsourced.
Sadly, the McCarthy bill is not the only bill that threatens our inheritance. There are several proposals that would cripple a century-old law called the Antiquities Act. You may never have heard of it, but this statute enabled 15 presidents to take swift action to protect Americans’ lands when they were in jeopardy, without waiting for legislation to wend its way through Congress.
President Herbert Hoover used the Antiquities Act to protect Death Valley. FDR can take credit for the Channel Islands. Bill Clinton signed the order creating Giant Sequoia National Monument. The list of places saved by this law includes the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, and Denali National Park.
We are losing open space at an alarming rate. It is critical that we protect the green places we have and fight to maintain balance in the laws and policies that determine how our lands are managed.
Congress can do just that by focusing instead on legislation that would create wilderness areas by adding worthy lands that we own to the National Wilderness Preservation System. No state has more wilderness initiatives in motion than California, with four bills under consideration. Senator Dianne Feinstein is championing a proposal that would preserve 1.6 million acres of the Mojave Desert. It would expand Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and the Mojave National Preserve. Senator Barbara Boxer submitted a bill enlarging the Pinnacles Wilderness and upgrading Pinnacles National Monument to a national park.
But this is not strictly a Democratic undertaking. One bill, protecting 21,000 acres of Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia in north San Diego County, was authored by GOP Congressman Darrell Issa. Fellow Republican David Dreier has introduced a measure to add 18,000 acres to the Sheep Mountain and Cucamonga wilderness areas in the San Gabriel Mountains.
With so much congressional action involving the people’s lands, this is an appropriate time to celebrate National Public Lands Day. It encourages all of us to help in organized activities that spruce up parks, plant trees, and maintain trails. It is also an opportunity to celebrate this inheritance and to commit ourselves to protecting this extraordinary natural legacy. As Theodore Roosevelt once 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.”
Congressman John Garamendi served as President Bill Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Interior Department from 1995-1998.