Saturday’s NYT has an op ed in which the Times’ former Seattle correspondent, Timothy Egan, reminds us of the wonderful heritage conservation-minded Presidents like Teddy Roosevelt left us by preserving and protecting federal lands and creating national parks and wild life sanctuaries. Almost every President since then has done something to expand or enhance this irreplaceable heritage, creating new parks and preserves, protecting endangered species and their habitats, cleaning up water and air pollution, and increasing public access without harming the treasures that belong to all Americans. Most Presidents, that is, except President Bush, who from the day he took office has given the keys to our national treasures to industries bent on destroying this heritage for short-run profit.
Egan’s op ed is behind Times Select, so I’ll give you the key excepts. Egan first revisits national forest lands originally protected 100 years ago by Teddy Roosevelt’s first chief of the forest service, Gifford Pinchot:
“In the national forests, big money was not king,” wrote Pinchot. The Forest Service was beloved, he said, because “it stood up for the honest small man and fought the predatory big man as no government bureau had done before.”
A century later, I drove through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on my way to climb Mount Hood, and found the place in tatters. Roads are closed, or in disrepair. Trails are washed out. The campgrounds, those that are open, are frayed and unkempt. It looks like the forestry equivalent of a neighborhood crack house.
In the Pinchot woods, you see the George W. Bush public lands legacy. If you want to drill, or cut trees, or open a gas line — the place is yours. Most everything else has been trashed or left to bleed to death.
I grew up in the West, and every summer my folks would take us camping in the West’s magnificent parks and monuments — vast places with beautiful forests or mountains with astonishing canyons and rock formations, awe inspiring rivers and waterfalls, and wildlife everywhere. In later years, with my own kids, there were trips to Yosemite or up the California/Oregon coasts or into the great parks in the Northwest. I still remember that drive in the Oregon mountains that leads to a wonder lodge near the top of — was it Mt Hood?? — and I suddenly realized that all these years we’d been taking advantage of this incredible heritage left by those who came before us.
And the people who did this for us weren’t rich folks or elitist benefactors. No, they were the American people, who during the Depression when the whole country was broke and flat on its back, listened to FDR, put fear behind them, and put themselves to work building thousands of bridges, and trails up the canyons and steps with railings back to the waterfalls, or built these amazing lodges high up on mountains so that ordinary Americans could stop, take a break and look out across this awesome country. They did that for us because they cared about us, the country’s future, and they didn’t want to see these amazing resources squandered or destroyed by greed.
We owe them. We owe them big time, and not just a “thank you,” with a plaque, but an ever renewing commitment to preserve what they did and do the same thing for those who will come after us. But right now, we have a problem.
Remember the scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when Jimmy Stewart’s character sees what would happen to Bedford Falls if the richest man in town took over? All those honky-tonks, strip joints and tenement dwellings in Pottersville?
If Roosevelt roamed the West today, he’d find some of the same thing in the land he entrusted to future presidents. The national wildlife system, started by T.R., has been emasculated. President Bush has systematically pared the budget to the point where, this year, more than 200 refuges could be without any staff at all.
The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees some of the finest open range, desert canyons and high-alpine valleys in the world, was told early on in the Bush years to make drilling for oil and gas their top priority. A demoralized staff has followed through, but many describe their jobs the way a cowboy talks about having to shoot his horse.
In Colorado, the bureau just gave the green light to industrial development on the aspen-forested high mountain paradise called the Roan Plateau. In typical fashion, the administration made a charade of listening to the public about what to do with the land. More than 75,000 people wrote them — 98 percent opposed to drilling.
For most of the Bush years, the Interior Department was nominally run by a Stepford secretary, Gale Norton, while industry insiders like J. Steven Griles — the former coal lobbyist who pled guilty this year to obstruction of justice — ran the department.
Same in the Forest Service, where an ex-timber industry insider, Mark Rey, guides administration policy.
They don’t take care of these lands because they see them as one thing: a cash-out. Thus, in Bush’s budget proposal this year, he guts the Forest Service budget yet again, while floating the idea of selling thousands of acres to the highest bidder. The administration says it wants more money for national parks. But the parks are $10 billion behind on needed repairs; the proposal is a pittance.
This past week, Christy wrote powerful, moving essays about what this regime has done to our country, from its catastrophic foreign interventions and its shameful torture and detention policies to its desecration of the Constitution, the rule of law and the administration of justice. As Christy says, we know we have to figure out a way to deal with this bunch of hoodlums who have captured our government and have the country by the throat and are now making up ever more preposterous arguments that they’re above the law. Everyone else here, posters and commenters alike, has been highlighting some outrage or another, in a never ending string of lawlessness, arrogance, unethical behavior and sheer stupidity on the part of this regime.
But I think we’re being too polite. A beltway pundit with exquisite insider sensibilities once remarked that Bill Clinton came into the White House and, by his personal behavior, “trashed the place.” But we have an Administration in power now that is deliberately trashing the whole country, day in, day out, and none of these oh-so-sensitive pundits is demanding that they stop.
What would that earlier generation, who selflessly gave us so much, have done? I suspect if this White House crowd had tried, decades ago, to trash the public works that generation had just built and left for their children and grandchildren, they would have been pretty upset. And if we told them that the Constitution and freedoms they fought for and protected in World War II had also been trashed by this White House, well . . . We owe them, we owe them big time.
(Photo of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite via the Library of Congress, c. 1903.)