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The Promise

Public lands and the conservation ethic are in themselves not inherently patriotic. But those who defend these lands, and those who practice the conservation ethic, are. Patriotism is a loaded word, often bloated with the jingoism of marketers and hucksters. Patriotism as seen in Yosemite and Yellowstone is pure, the unspoiled gift of freedom and happiness from one generation of Americans to the next.

Isn’t that worth defending?

It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things…Theodore Roosevelt

The veil is gossamer gauze softening a furrowed face. The fabric is threadbare and frayed. Yet for over 150 years this facade has been America the beautiful. For 150 years, America has shown her best side, her promise, to the world.

America is hope – the brass of the Declaration of Independence, the vision of the Constitution, the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” still guides the way for millions of dispossessed and down trodden. Our nation emerged with little more than moxy and an IOU, a country of unremarkable immigrants and vagabonds who rose to the sublime.

The nation that began with a promise remained just that for much of its history. James Madison said that “the happy Union of these States is a wonder; their Constitution a miracle; their example the hope of Liberty throughout the world.” I doubt that Madison asked his Montpelier slaves how this “hope of Liberty” had worked out for them. In the beginning the landless didn’t vote, women didn’t vote, slaves didn’t vote (in fact, slaves began their American adventure counting as 3/5 of a human being).

Not until the American Civil War and the investment of over 600,000 lives did America begin to make good on her promise of liberty. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence states “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Liberty as in the unfettered right to vote would not be realized until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a century after the end of the Civil War and almost two centuries after Jefferson’s Declaration. America’s promises are often deferred until more fertile times and minds evolve.

Conservation and public lands were not mentioned in the Constitution, although the “pursuit of happiness” clause in the Declaration at least alludes to quality of life, not just quantity of possessions. Founders such as Madison worried about the relentless felling of the forests east of the Appalachia. During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln still found the time to initiate protections for Yosemite. Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson believed in the transformative power of the American landscape.

Yet not until the early 20th Century did Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement begin to formalize this uniquely American idea, an inseparable tie between nation and nature, in one of the most perfect expressions of the American democracy, public lands. To enter a public land is to become an American. Citizen or not, each visitor perfects and affirms that most American of aspirations – equality. The social and class divisions that twist the outside world blend to indistinguishability within these commons.

Our 'neoconservatives' are neither new nor conservative, but old as Babylon and evil as Hell…Edward Abbey

Progress has been a tedious march, though, more plod than sprint. At times we have fallen (Dred Scott and the Japanese internment in WWII come to mind). Those whose embrace of freedom has been limited by what they grasp within their own arms have strenuously opposed each step forward. For regressives life is a zero sum game, even in a land of plenty.

Universal suffrage, civil rights, social security, environmental protection, and antitrust regulations are but a few progressive actions that attracted a countervailing reaction. Roosevelt’s protective reach through the use of the 1906 American Antiquities Act shocked the Senate into fits of apoplexy. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act, American accomplishments that are examples to the world, are still relentlessly countered.

Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub…Grover Norquist

Regressive campaigns, those that wish to return us to a time before we made good on the American promise, follow a familiar pattern. First, try to undo the progressive laws with regressive laws. That created by legislation can be undone by legislation. As a whole, however, this body of law is popular with the voters. As seen recently, try to undo popular legislation such as Medicare at your own peril.

If laws cannot be defeated legislatively, the next regressive step is to take them to court. But even regressive courts are hesitant to counter popular legislation enacted fairly and constitutionally. There is a final end around in the regressive playbook. If the Congress can’t change a law, and the courts won’t touch it, then cut its financial cord. Cut off the money, and allow the law to wither on the vine.

Republican operative Grover Norquist defined this final strategy, and the Republican Party has been steadily and relentlessly implementing Norquist’s vision (at least it did until the recent attempt to repeal ethanol subsidies). Yet it is today’s perfect storm that has filled the regressives’ sails.

The storm’s ingredients are quite basic. All that’s needed is to cut taxes for the wealthy, gin up a couple of wars, and let the business extremists run loose on Wall Street. Once the inevitable happens and the country exceeds its cash and credit, scream about overspending and demand that anything progressive be gutted. A recent New York Times article summarized this well.

The emerging budget deal, which could reach into scores of complex federal programs that will have to be restructured to produce the savings, creates a whole different set of problems. “That was about numbers,” Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat who is the chairman of the Budget Committee, said of the earlier agreement that averted a government shutdown. “This is about policy.”

Here are a few examples for the doubters. Texas is a true Republican hegemony with a Republican governor and a Republican supermajority in the legislature. The new Republican budget will shrink Texas Parks and Wildlife’s (TPW) funding by $145.46 million over the two years for the 2012-2013 biennium, a 20.8 percent decrease. The state budget also effectively zeroes out 2012-2013 funding for Local Park Grants used to create or enhance city and county parks across the state. The sporting goods tax brings in about $120 million for TPW annually, and the Republican legislature will divert 73% of these revenues to the general fund. Texans who purchase conservation license plates for an additional $30 will have half of that charge diverted as well.

Fine, you say. In difficult times we all must sacrifice. At the same time that the Texas legislature is eviscerating Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) budget is being increased by almost $3 billion. The legislature is providing this additional TxDOT funding through debt. The $3 billion in bonds to be sold will be repaid through the general fund. And TPW? The agency receives no general funds, yet once again the department’s budget is on the chopping block.

According to an article in the Palm Beach Post, “Gov. Rick Scott and Republican budget-cutters in Congress are seeking to chop big chunks of state and federal funding for programs designed to preserve the natural environment."

"Government regulations to clean the air and water and prevent global warming are under attack. Even Everglades restoration, long a sacred cow for environmentalists and leaders of both political parties, may fall victim to the budget ax.”

A recent article in the New York Times illustrates how widespread this attack has become. California has announced plans to close as many as 70 state parks. Washington parks will soon be divorced from the general fund and will for the first time charge an entrance fee (the $10 daily one-day fee will no doubt keep the riff-raff out). States such as Ohio and Pennsylvania are opening state parks and forests for oil and gas development. Gov. C. L. Otter of Idaho has proposed eliminating the parks department altogether, and many others are toying, once again, with the concept of privatizing the parks.

John Quigley, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, recently published an article about the crisis in the commons. As John notes, “after years of repeated budget cuts, the General Fund Budget for Pennsylvania’s state parks is $28 million – less than half of what it was in 2008. In fact, the General Fund provides only about a third of parks operating needs. $27 million in gas royalties goes directly to the parks operating budget.” Democrat Governor Rendell opened state parks and forests to fracking, with a small percentage of the lease revenues invested back in public lands. Republican Governor Corbett has followed suit.

The federal budget is no different. A plethora of conservation programs have been either gutted or dismantled. The RC&D program, responsible for aiding rural communities in economic development and land conservation, has been halted. Another of the keystone conservation partnership programs, the Joint Ventures, is being sidelined as well.

Here are a few others on the hit list:

•The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act

•State Wildlife Grants

•North American Wetlands Conservation Act

Climate change, endangered species, and wilderness protection are examples of conservation programs that are falling under the regressive barrage. Angered by opposing voices? Defund NPR. Furious at the greenies? Call them environmental extremists, and drop a few “terrorists” quotes at strategic moments.

Senator Orrin Hatch, one of the regressives that freely applies the extremist label, has introduced legislation to “curb environmental extremists’ excessive lawsuits against the federal government.” The proposed law would amend the Equal Access to Justice Act. Hatch says “our nation must not allow and cannot afford to let extremists hijack our laws and hold the American people hostage to their radical views.” In order to bring suit against the federal government in an environmental issue, a litigant would have to demonstrate “a “direct and personal monetary interest” in the action. Where is Thurgood Marshall when we need him? How would Brown v. Board of Education have fared with such a requirement?

When Hatch and his ilk talk about “the American people,” he, of course, is not referencing the same people as Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt considered himself a “steward of the people,” and focused on bringing big business under stronger regulation so that he could effectively serve all the people he represented.” Hatch is a steward of big business and a proponent of the exploitation of public lands.

Probably the greatest harm done by vast wealth is the harm that we of moderate means do ourselves when we let the vices of envy and hatred enter deep into our own natures…Theodore Roosevelt

We live in a time of envy and hatred. We see these vices being manifest in the most essential parts of the body politic – the law. Roosevelt said “the American people are slow to wrath, but when their wrath is once kindled it burns like a consuming flame.” How long should we expect this ember to smolder before it “burns like a consuming flame? How egregious do the acts that invite this wrath need to be?

In 2010 Goldman Sachs set aside $15.3 billion for bonuses and compensation. This largesse greatly exceeds the $12 billion budgeted for the entire Department of the Interior. Goldman has almost 860 current and former partners, and in the last 12 years they have cashed out more than $20 billion in Goldman shares and currently hold more than $10 billion in Goldman stock. The savings for the budget cuts listed above are chump change compared to the bonuses paid by this one company, a major contributor to the economic melt down we are all suffering and that underpins the assault on the conservation programs and public lands so many Americans hold dear. We are willing to bailout Goldman Sachs (they received $12.9 billion of the $85 billion that went to AIG), but then allow the public lands and conservation programs tank.

Where is the fury? Where is the outrage? The silence is deafening, the indifference numbing. Why?

In part, issues that are more personal than public lands and conservation distract the American people. Americans are worried about jobs, education, the health of their families. America is faced with intransigent unemployment, rising energy costs (gasoline), and volatile international affairs. There are Americans who are consumed with terrorists, illegal immigrants, gays and lesbians, Ivy League graduates, flying saucers, American Idol, ebola, Weinergate, birth certificates, Pippa, and bed bugs. America is easily distracted, and parks and public lands are drowned in a tide of sobering, petty, and innane preoccupations.

Regressives also have successfully characterized public lands and conservation as part of the environmental extremist agenda. For most Americans the line between the BLM, USDA Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife, National Park Service, and the ACOE is fine indeed. Who reads closely enough to know who manages what?

The western governors do. They have joined Hatch in supporting limitations on the environmental extremists’ right to sue. The western governors and legislatures are paragons of self sufficiency, although most depend on our lands, federal lands, for their riches. Let’s consider just how independent these states are when we look at the amount of federal support they received versus what they paid into the pot in 2005.

•New Mexico (received $2.03 for every dollar sent to Washington in taxes)

•Alaska (received $1.84)

•Montana (received $1.47)

•Idaho (received $1.27)

•Arizona (received $1.19)

•Wyoming (received $1.11)

•Utah (received $1.07)

And what about examples of those states that the western free marketers love to ridicule?

•New Jersey (received $.61 for every dollar contributed in taxes)

•Connecticut (received $.69)

•Illinois (received $.75)

•California (received $.78)

•New York (received $.79)

And who do we find opposing expanded wilderness protection for federal lands? The Obama administration proposed a plan to make millions of acres of our land in western states available for federal wilderness protection. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called the plan a "midnight ambush," and declared that the federal policy would circumvent state efforts to determine what areas should be deemed wilderness and whether it would harm Utah's economy. Herbert, a Republican, hoped that Alaska ($1.84), Idaho ($1.27) and Wyoming ($1.11) would join Utah ($1.07) in the lawsuit. Faced with Republican opposition, Secretary Salazar, who apparently never read Edward Abbey, turned tail and ran.

Whether a greenway funded by federal transportation dollars, or a local park funded by the LWCF, the benefits that are returned from Washington to our public lands are pervasive and essential. These draconian cuts will impact you wherever you are, no matter how closeted you may be in your own home.

But I also believe that part of the problem is with those who manage and advocate public lands. Parks and resource agencies, in general, are trapped in a time warp, screwed by antiquated regulations and ponderous bureaucracies into a 19th Century worm hole. Recreational groups use Facebook and blogs to plan activities in parks while park staff is firewalled from accessing these sites from work. Budgets are tightened, and the first personnel to be riffed are frontline staff such as interpreters and rangers who actually have the opportunity to influence the public. Advocacy groups have come to resemble the mega industries they depend on for their funding, ever cautious not to take a position that might offend the delicate sensibilities of funders. Extreme? Try timid instead.

The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders…Edward Abbey

All have lost sight the American promise. Public lands and the conservation ethic are in themselves not inherently patriotic. But those who defend these lands, and those who practice the conservation ethic, are. Patriotism is a loaded word, often bloated with the jingoism of marketers and hucksters. Patriotism as seen in Yosemite and Yellowstone is pure, the unspoiled gift of freedom and happiness from one generation of Americans to the next. Isn’t that worth defending?

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Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks is president and CEO of Fermata Inc. an Austin-based global leader is sustainable tourism and outdoor recreation. Eubanks and Fermata were responsible for developing the first birding trails, in Texas, in the early 1990s. He has served on the national boards of Audubon and the CLO, and received the first ABA Chan Robbins Award in 2000. Eubanks writes extensively about birds, conservation, and sustainability, and has coauthored two books about birds (The Birdlife of Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast, and Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). To continue his work connecting people to places, birders to birds, Eubanks has formed a new company, Great American Trails, which is using new technologies to attract new constituents to the outdoors.
Ted Lee Eubanks

Latest posts by Ted Lee Eubanks (see all)

  • Ted,

    I am perhaps a “regressionist” by your definition. I would prefer to see government involvement in all aspects of life reduced to the bare minimum. My philosophical views on government are largely influenced by Frederick Bastiat’s “The Law” and Ezra Benson’s “The Proper Role of Government”. That being said, as a birder and a nature enthusiast, I do struggle to verbalize my position on the subject of public lands and how they relate to my principles of the proper role of government. As I write out my thoughts here, I hope to settle more firmly on my own position.

    I absolutely agree that wilderness, and a lot more of it, needs to be perpetually protected so as to remain “natural” for the enjoyment of wildlife and mankind. The problem for most political conservatives comes from the funding – the taking of money by force (taxes) and giving it to another; “legalized plunder” as described by Bastiat. In the case of public lands, the conservative argument of legal plunder does not hold up. Though taxes are the source of funding, in this case the proceeds are not being redistributed to the indolent, but rather for the benefit of all.

    Where government regulation and protection is necessary, the most local and smallest form of government should be employed. The most local and smallest level of government is the most effective and can be held most accountable by the citizens who created the government. This principle can and should apply to the administration of public lands. This, for me, means the federal government doesn’t have to be involved very often.

    Government activities must live within their budgets and therefore can only spend monies that are received. When the economy is struggling, tax revenue plummets, so to must budgets for tax funded programs. I could find several hundred programs that truly are “legalized plunder” that I would love to see eliminated and/or phased out before budgets have to be cut in the management of public lands. So I agree with you that conservative leaders are not focused in the right direction. During such economic struggles we must focus on streamlining, eliminating waste, and increasing efficiencies and I think we all can agree that the agencies managing our lands could all use a dose of that.

    I see the need for extremists on both sides of every issue. They bring necessary awareness and over time, balance to the universe. Please don’t paint Republicans, political conservatives, Tea Party’ers as nature haters who want to greedily exploit natural resources for their own gain. Such generalizations are simply not true. The birding world includes so many good people across the entire political spectrum. I think we have the same end goals as it relates to conservation, but it is how we get there that we have the debate.

  • Ted,

    I think you have hit the nail on the head in this piece so many times that you are in danger of breaking your hammer. The current evisceration of our parks – local, state, and national – is nothing short of a national tragedy. Even in New York City the parks that are thriving are those that are playgrounds for the rich where corporate and private money flows and access is often limited (like the High Line in Chelsea). Parks in working class neighborhoods suffer from cutbacks, neglect, and understaffing.

    As for Robert’s concerns for “Republicans, political conservatives, Tea Party’ers” being painted as nature haters, well, if I self-identified with any of those three classifications I would be concerned with my image vis-a-vis the natural world as well. The fact is that the current extremist iteration of the right in this country has as a basic plank in their platform the destruction of environmental legislation and protection (a position that was cemented when a pesticide maker and exterminator from Texas named Tom DeLay was elected majority leader in the 2003, a position he held until he was forced to resign before being convicted of money laundering).

    It is kind of amazing that the teahadists have sunk lower than Richard Nixon, who, after all, signed into law the ESA. Republicans who are reasonable in their views on the environment, like ex-New York Governor George Pataki, could never be elected as a republican today.

    Libertarianism as espoused by well-intentioned folks like Robert is a disaster for the environment in a world loaded with powerful corporations with political lackeys who will do their will, all while claiming that deregulation is about freedom when anyone paying attention can see that it is about greed.

  • “Our ‘neoconservatives’ are neither new nor conservative, but old as Babylon and evil as Hell”…Edward Abbey


    Robert Mortenson ought be ashamed to associate with Republicans (the real Republican Party no longer even exists), political conservatives, and/or Tea Partiers… what naivete, what foolhardiness — no, they don’t “hate” nature; they’re simply indifferent to it, except as an object of exploitation. We won’t soon recover from the greed, economic destruction, and shortsightedness wrought by Reagan-Bush lunacy.

  • Dear Cyberthrush,

    A big part of the reason this blog exists is to promote the exchange of ideas among the birding community. This is far better done when people say why they support something, or at least use concrete facts to explain why they oppose it. I’m afraid you’re crossing the line into bullying and sloganeering when you tell someone in this context that they, “ought to be ashamed,” of their political views or say things like, “the real Republican Party no longer even exists.”

    I think Ted’s post and Robert’s response are both positive and helpful, even though they’re sharply critical of certain ideas and policies.

    In future, I would ask that you stick to elucidating your own beliefs, opinions, and policies rather than trying to make someone else merely feel bad about theirs.

    I’ll finish by repeating Robert’s closing statement, which I hope you can in fact agree with. I certainly do. “The birding world includes so many good people across the entire political spectrum. I think we have the same end goals as it relates to conservation, but it is how we get there that we have the debate.”

  • Ted and everyone,

    I found this piece by Timothy Egan regarding the impending permanent closure of California’s Jack London State Historic Park to be well worth reading. I think others interested in issues surrounding public land might, too.

  • Take a look at Old Faithful, a free-flowing stream, hear the kids playing in your local park. Whatever political label you give yourself, or however you are labeled by others–don’t we all want to take care of these things? We are going to have to work together to do it, because indifference won’t get the job done.

  • Perhaps presenting my political position distracted from my points, and from Ted’s for that matter. Allow be to be more succinct in my position:

    1. The preservation and protection of public lands can and should fit within conservative politics. Public lands benefit everyone and preserve the character of our nation.
    2. The preservation and protection of public lands should be carried out at the smallest and most local form of government, which I see is the most effective and held the most accountable by the citizenry.
    3. Political leaders should not be focused on cutting budgets on the easiest targets like conservation. There are a million other “entitlement” programs that should be evaluated and could cut back first.

    Another point. I’ll bet if you surveyed 100 political conservatives on the street, nearly all of them love the outdoors and wildlife and would be willing to donate money to is protection and preservation for posterity. It is only the idea of big government and higher taxes that is off-putting, hence my positions above. Just because the media portrays Tea-Party’ers as nature-haters does not mean its true. Unfortunately, the lobbiests have the loudest voices on both sides and the voice of the common man is too weak. I will work within my circle of influence more fervently in the support of conservation. I hope you will too!

    The wonderful thing about the birding world is that it can unite people as politically diverse as Corey and me. Focusing on our commonly held beliefs and passions, I think we can work together for good.

    Jeff, if the ABA presidency was an elected position by the membership, I would be the first one to sign up to be on your campaign committee. You continue to show a greatness of spirit and mind! Thank you.

  • jmj

    “2. The preservation and protection of public lands should be carried out at the smallest and most local form of government, which I see is the most effective and held the most accountable by the citizenry.”

    Really? You think it would be an improvement if e.g. Voyageur’s National park in my home state of Minnesota was managed by St. Louis County, Minnesota? Aransas National Wildlife Refuge should be managed by Aransas County, TX? If the people in these counties decided they no longer wanted these lands to be protected, you’d be OK with that? If the state of Utah decided they no longer wanted to maintain Zion National Park as a public land, you’d endorse their right to make that decision?

    If we left environmental protections to local communities, there would be far fewer protections for piping plovers in Cape Hatteras right now (those locals displaying ‘piping plover tastes like chicken’ bumper stickers sure are charming, aren’t they?).

    If we left the decision entirely to Alaska, there would be oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge right now.

    I’m sorry, but local protection of national treasures is just not even a remotely plausible idea. It may sound nice in a theoretical sort of way, but it would never work in reality.

  • Excellent point! I support policies that perpetually protect wild lands, where the ebb and tide of public opinion cannot destroy that which should remain preserved. If a bigger hammer is required to do the job, I’m okay with that too. There are cases in which the federal government may have to exert its power, and some of those may be your examples.

  • Thanks to all for the comments, all of them. Robert, I am afraid that I agree with jmj’s point about local control. This hasn’t worked. There is a reason that Pittman-Robertson has a strong no-diversion clause. If public lands are a part of the American promise (my argument), then I want part of my tax dollars funding them in perpetuity.

    My purpose in writing this piece for the ABA blog is simple – birding depends on public lands. Is there a single person reading this blog who has not birded within a park, refuge, forest, etc.? How many of us do not depend on public lands for most if not all of our non-yard birding? If you bird in a county park, those are public lands (and probably received LWCF money to be built). City park? Same situation. Birding and birds depend on these public lands, and yet I do not see birders or their organizations going to the mat on this one.


  • Because this is the era of blind ideology. If you identify as a conservative or “Republican” (whatever that means), you simply cannot support environmental conservation at the federal level because that violates the playbook you get when you join the team. This goes for politicians all way down to folks like my mom who gets her science news from Fox and can’t figure out why I think banning offshore drilling would be a good thing. (I honestly think the same goes for the opposite side of the political spectrum where college students do a lot of shouting before thinking about trendy causes of the left.)

    So you have birding with its strong voice from the affluent Caucasian demographic, many of whom are for one reason or another beholden to the Republican playbook. For them, birding isn’t about appreciating nature so much as it’s a challenging hobby that involves expensive gear and worldwide travel and good stories to share at the country club. Those people are far from the majority, but I fear their voice is outsized relative to the rest. I hate to judge people by their vehicle, but there are always a couple Escalades parked among the Priuses at the festivals. (Yes, I’m the snooty Prius-driver like Brian from Family Guy!) I’m guessing that many birding organizations simply want to live by the rule of not discussing politics or religion at the dinner party. If you just talk about birds, it’s much easier to keep the peace and the vocal Rush Limbaugh disciple won’t cause a scene.

    The problem lies in birding not being like a myriad of other hobbies that draw from a diverse pool of people. Our hobby depends on conservation. There’s not much reason for the local railroad enthusiast’s club, the aquarium club, or the square dancing club to endorse a political candidate or platform. There’s a compelling, and I would argue urgent, need for bird clubs to do so. Which is exactly what you’re saying here, Ted. Can we afford to keep our mouths shut about politics at the dinner table? It’s time to ruffle some feathers.

    – A relatively affluent, tree-hugging, often politically conservative, Prius-driving white guy who like birds.

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