American Birding Podcast



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?