8 April 2020

  In “Fantine,” the first book of “Les Miserables,” Victor Hugo introduces us to Bishop Myriel,  a man who could be well-to-do, but choses to use most of his money and other resources for the poor and needy. In old age, he lives with his elderly sister and an equally elderly housekeeper, Mme. Magloire. His residence has a garden, divided into four plats, three of which Mme. Magloire uses to grow vegetables. Bishop Myriel uses the fourth for flowers. As Victor Hugo explains, the Bishop “did not study plants, he loved flowers.”

   Mme. Magliore gently chided the Bishop one time: “Monseigneur, you are always anxious to make everything useful, but yet here is a plat that is of no use. It would be much better to have salads there than bouquets.”

   “Madame Magliore,” replied the Bishop, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added, after a moment’s pause, “perhaps more so.”

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      Among certain groups,  it’s argued that the Federal Government should not hold public lands – that they should be sold to private parties or given to the states or other local entities. The reasoning against public land reservation runs the gamut: (1) it is alleged to be unconstitutional for the Federal government to hold lands; (2) the lands can be better managed and cared for by private or state owners; (3) they are costing us tax payers too much to administer; and (4) they can be used to generate a lot more revenue in local hands than they do in Federal hands.

   The constitutionality issue goes back to the original “states’ rights” and proper size of the federal government arguments, made at the time our Constitution was written. Thomas Jefferson was so concerned about the legality of his Louisiana Purchase that he toyed with the idea of amending the Constitution to (after the fact) make the purchase “legal.” The Constitution was not amended, and most Administrations since (Republican and Democrat) have freely acquired and managed federal lands, with no thought for Constitutional amendments. “Constitutionality” remains the cry of “sagebrush rebellion” and “anti-Federal” types, but I think if we can rescue the country from the current Administration, we’ll be all right. Any move beyond the continuous nitpicking and the occasional armed stand-offs would require a complete turnabout in our National Ethos and, yes, amendments to the Constitution.

    The other three arguments about Federal ownership may have some grains of truth scattered through them, but generally they are wrong. Most states don’t have the resources to manage what they already own, and more often than not they are selling or leasing State lands to private parties who are seeking private gain. Regarding the costs of administering Federal lands, way back in the 1960s I heard a savvy person describe the entire U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service allocation as no more than “a rounding error” in the National budget. Comparatively, the same could be said about the entire Federal land management budget today, except for those expenses related to oil and gas extraction and other uses of public land meant for private gain. There’s no question that more revenue could be generated off public lands, but more revenue for who? The question supposes that money generated – no matter for who, or at what cost to public objectives – is a Good Thing. I think not.

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   Recently, I read a book, “In Defense of Public Lands, the Case Against Privatization and Transfer” (Steven Davis, Temple University Press, 2018). The author talked about all four arguments against Federal land ownership, but concentrated on the costs and benefits of public land ownership and management versus private ownership. If you want a lot of information on how the Federal lands already more than “pay their way,” I recommend the book.

   Even so, I’m struck by the wrongness of the comparison. Most Federal lands were not reserved for the purpose of “making money,” and because “making money” is not what it’s all about, the value of the Federal lands will always be greatly underestimated in strictly monetary terms. In the 1960s, we quickly learned that most proposals for Federal water projects could cite  much more “value” (in terms of money generated) from recreational opportunity (boating, camping, picnicking) than the area could for wildlife management (even when we overestimated hunting and fishing revenues as “wildlife” values). In litigation on water rights in the Snake River (an issue dating back to my involvement in the 1980s, and still unresolved), it’s proven difficult to show any “value” to keeping enough water flow in the river to preserve a string of wildlife refuge islands – islands without any unique species, just (my emphasis) things like Canada geese and great blue herons! To the dyed-in-the-wool Capitalist, Nature will always be either a losing proposition or a potential money-maker.

   Thankfully, as a Nation, we have a long history of preserving Nature for Nature’s Sake. The National Park Service Act of 1916 justified establishing national parks “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The National Wildlife Refuge System mission (as stated in its 1966 Administration Act) “is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations.” Both statements emphasize current and future generations of Americans. Neither mentions making money, either for the Government or for Private Enterprise.

   The objectives of the other two major Federal land-holding agencies, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, are of a different vein. The Forest Service Organic Administration Act of 1897 set that agency’s goals “to improve and protect the forest within the (National Forest) boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States…" The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a relatively new agency formed in 1946 by the joining of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service, has from its inception been the administrator of otherwise unreserved Federal lands. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 requires that those lands be managed for “multiple use” and “sustained yield.” While both “make money” (a little bit for Uncle Sam, and a lot for The Capitalists), they both are well aware of the non-monetary value of their charges. The Forest Service started developing campgrounds for visitors as early as 1916, and was reserving certain lands as “wilderness” or “primitive” a quarter-century before required by the 1964 Wilderness Act. A recent publication of BLM affirms their “multiple use” mandate, but follows up by noting that they don’t have to have multiple uses on every acre. Both the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are now fully invested in wilderness, endangered species, recreation, cultural resources, and other “Beautiful,” as opposed to just “Useful,” objectives.

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    Although we love our national parks, national wildlife refuges, federal wildernesses, and other public lands, we’ve never given caring for them the priority it should have. That includes money to adequately maintain them, but also efforts to make sure we are actually protecting what we preserved.

    As anyone who watches TV commercials can tell you, maintaining Beauty is a tough job that requires a lot of time, imagination, hard work, and diligence. According to the same commercials. It also takes a lot of Money. Taking the money part first, the entire annual budget for the Fish and Wildlife Service is $2.8 billion; for the National Park Service, a slightly larger $3 billion. To someone like me (and probably you) who didn’t make $1 million in my entire working life, and whose annual income now is just enough, talking “billions” sounds like Real Money. But, for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which controls 150 million acres of land and water, $2.8 billion is a mere $20 per acre; the National Park Service, with a little more money and only 83 million acres of parkland, gets a whopping $36 per acre. If you have experience managing any property and have had to pay salaries, maintain equipment, buy materials, and do a little bit of upkeep, you know that those budgets can’t even keep up with very basic requirements. Looking at it another way, $3 billion would buy you one modern-day submarine or three surface-to-air missiles. The military budget is around $934 billion; certainly, as the richest nation in the world, we can afford a little more to retain our Natural Beauty.

   To stick with TV beauty commercials, there’s one in which a young woman looks a little less than super gorgeous, and blames it on too much night life. Her “beauty” is obviously not gone, and the Real Her is still there, but she needs a little “repair” to get back to “looking her best.” I think that’s where we are with the Federal lands – particularly the national parks, but in many other locations, as well. For many, many years, we’ve been sending the message that “you have to see the Grand Canyon,” “you have to see Yosemite Valley,” and “you have to see Yellowstone.” The message has been heard loud and clear, and in recent years visits to the national parks have grown to exceed 330 million. The usual response to increased demand has been to try to accommodate it with improved roads, more campgrounds, new lodging, and more restaurants. Some of the results, as described in an well-researched, but horrifying, article in The Guardian (“Crisis in our National Parks” – 20 Nov 2018): 2-mile-long traffic jams in Yellowstone, caused by people stopping to watch bison and wolves; up to three hour delays to get a spot on one of the shuttles to take you into the private-vehicle-free Yosemite Valley; and in recent years in Yellowstone  “a 90% increase in vehicle accidents, a 60% bump in calls for ambulance services and a 130% rise in searches and rescues.”  If all this isn’t enough, the concept of “accommodating” everybody has been expanding to accommodating in more “commercially viable” ways. As the Trump Administration’s completely corporation-staffed “Made in America Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee” concluded [October 2019]: “Evidence suggests that occupancy rates at many campgrounds could grow and additional services, from WiFi to utilities, equipment rentals and camp stores, food and extended family sites are desired and would substantially boost net agency revenues, especially when operational costs are transferred to private sector partners.” Both Unintended Consequences and Purposeful Commercialization are threatening both the Beauty and the Utility of our Federal lands.

     Wallace Stegner’s often-used quote about the National Parks can be applied to all the Federal land reservations, I think:"…the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." Perhaps another well-known quote should be considered at this time. When Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was asked what kind of government had been decided on for our new nation. His reply: “A republic, if we can keep it.” The implication is that good ideas don’t live on by themselves; they need active support and commitment to survive. With the increasing pressures on our federal lands, we need to ask ourselves: how do we KEEP the best idea we ever had?




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