Monday, January 18, 2016

Opposition to Monuments Based on Misinformation

A majority of Californians have expressed support for three new monuments proposed for California's desert and under consideration by the President.  Voices opposing the designation of new national monuments, however, appear to be driven by misinformation and a distorted faith in Congress to act as a responsible steward of our wildlands.  They claim that conservation has run amok, that monument designations will lock out the public, and that only Congress should decide which lands to protect.

Tyrannical Conservation Designations?
The first claim - that conservation is some oppressive land management regime that has run amok - is relatively easy to dispute.  National Parks, monuments, and wilderness areas - wildlands that are protected from most types of industrial development - account for about 4% of the total land area of the United States.  With that number in mind, consider that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of wildlife species on Earth.  This is mostly driven by habitat loss, among a host of other human impacts that - combined - have led scientists to declare that humans have pushed the planet into a new geological epochIn other words, it is a miracle that we even have the opportunity to visit the California desert and experience a landscape and ecosystem that stretches beyond the horizon.

Without permanent protection from industrial uses, this landscape will remain vulnerable. We will not be able to guarantee that future generations will share the same experience that we - and our ancestors - have enjoyed on these widlands.  Why should my daughter visit the Mojave Trails area 30 years from now if the prized section of Historic Route 66 is surrounded by a sea of solar panels and wind turbines, and the mountains have been carved open by open pit mines?  Beyond the priceless experiences that generations of humans have to gain from desert conservation, there is still the intrinsic value of a healthy ecosystem where wildflowers erupt in a riot of color in the spring and natural springs feed bighorn sheep and migrating birds.
Conservation Locking out the Public?
Desert monuments would maintain our access to public lands, not lock us out.  California's desert is a popular landscape that attracts millions of visitors each year for hiking, photography, 4x4 touring, rock climbing, camping, wildlife watching, and astronomy.  Monument status would ensure that future generations get to enjoy these same activities without the threat that some energy company will come along and bulldoze our favorite camping spot.

Most voices against desert monuments, however, fret that monument status would significantly limit vehicle access to desert wildlands.  This fear is probably encouraged by "land grab" rhetoric from the same folks that brought us the Bundy militia.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) already manages the lands within the boundary of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, and would continue to do so once a monument is established.  The BLM has long-favored vehicle access on lands that it manages (sometimes a bit much),  and there is nothing inherent in the monument proposal that would lead to a significant loss in vehicle access.  Some of the monument opponents may be confusing monument designations with wilderness designations, which do prohibit most vehicle access.  But the monument proposals do not include wilderness designations; wilderness would have to be established by Congress.

Others fear that other recreational activities would be prohibited.  As an example, some in the rock hound community believe they'll be shut out and not allowed to collect gems and minerals.  However, rock hounding would almost certainly still be permitted in the Mojave Trails National Monument as it is in other monuments managed by the BLM.  Just like horseback riding, ATV riding on designated routes, rock climbing, mountain biking, camping, and plenty of other outdoor activities.  The idea that monuments lock out the public is simply misinformed.

Congress or the Antiquities Act?
Finally, many argue that the President should not use his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate new monuments in the desert, claiming that Congress would be a superior and more transparent way to bestow conservation designations.  I agree that it would be nice if Congress would act to protect our public lands, but there is no reason for me to believe that we could accomplish that without undue cost and sacrifice.  Representative Cook's own "compromise" legislation would open up thousands of acres in the Mojave Trails area to mining and prohibit the President from granting permanent protection status to this iconic stretch of Historic Route 66 and the surrounding desert vistas.

This Congress has moved multiple times to undermine the Endangered Species Act and has encouraged the privatization of public lands.  There is little appetite in Congress for the scale of conservation that is necessary to protect the beauty of the California desert.  How can I tell?  The California Desert Protection Act has been festering in a toxic Congress since 2010 with no movement forward.  Why should I believe that suddenly Congress has a genuine interest in protecting public lands in the desert?

Furthermore, the claim that Congress is a more transparent route to conservation is false.  Industry lobbyists have plenty of access to the halls of the Capitol building, and can negatively influence conservation provisions of the bill at various stages of the legislative process.  Legislative horse trading can occur last minute without public input before a bill is put up for a vote, so we could end up with an anti-conservation rider in a bill at the last minute.  In short, be careful of what you wish for.  Now is not a good time to give Congress an opportunity to re-write how we manage and protect our desert wildlands. 

It is time to grant permanent protection to these desert wildlands from industrial destruction.  If Congress had shown any sincere appreciation for our public lands over the past few years these monument proposals would not even be on the President's desk for consideration. Instead of watching Congress kicking the can down the road, I hope that the President will soon establish the Mojave Trails, Sand-to-Snow and Castle Mountains National Monuments.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Armed Takeover Another Troubling Step Against Public Lands

Armed extremists occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon's high desert continue to argue that our public lands be handed over to states or private interests to expand economic exploitation.  The sound bite media coverage of this occupation sometimes frames this standoff in a way that fails to convey what is at stake for you and me - the public.   The militia are attempting to rob us of our public lands using force and intimidation, threatening to fire upon any law enforcement effort to renew our access to the occupied lands.  The militia's alternative is to return to a corrupt giveaway of public lands that only leads to destruction and privatization of our natural heritage, a trend we had decided decades ago was not in our national interest. 

The militia say they are speaking for the public, but they are actually speaking for a small slice of the population that wants to do what they want with our lands without limitations or costs.  They'd like to let their cattle mow down stream side vegetation and ruin our waterways, or log our forests in a way that would leave our mountains bare. They want to drill and blast away canyons for uranium mining. They may wear jeans and cowboy hats, but their mentality is no different than Brightsource Energy or Exxon Mobil executives in suits and ties.  In the interest of profit, they would rather create a Tragedy of the Commons than propose science-based alternatives that would balance economic interests with the long-term heath of our public lands.  Nancy Langston's piece on the history of commercial exploitation and land management at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge further underscores that the militia is simply selling another brand of snake oil.

And despite the militia's complaints that land use regulations amount to "tyranny," the Bureau of Land Management still administers nearly 18,000 grazing permits on nearly 155 million acres of public lands.  The cost of grazing on public land is 93% cheaper than on private land, and receives many other taxpayer subsidies.  The Forest Service in 2014 allowed the removal of nearly 2.8 billion board feet of timber.  This is in addition to the millions of acres opened up to natural gas, coal, solar and wind.  There is no shortage of representation in Washington that caters to industry and agricultural uses of our public lands, which makes the Bundy militia's claim that public land is off limits to extractive industry all the more ironic. 

I don't always agree with how the Department of Interior manages our public lands, but there is no doubt in my mind that handing our lands over to the states or private interests - as the militia has argued - would spell doom for the spectacular natural treasures that make America special.  Some states and local jurisdictions have made it very clear that they would hand over public land to industry if given the chance,  rather than manage our beautiful wildlands for the benefit of all Americans.  To this end, organizations like ALEC have carried out legislative and legal campaigns to privatize our public lands with the help of some misguided elected officials.  Apparently they can count on the Bundy militia to be the thugs that point the guns at the public during this takeover.