August 31, 2015

Conservation is Conservative

Independence Day: Public Lands and Liberty

Flag at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park. Photo: wikimedia commons

Flag at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park. Photo: wikimedia commons

Independence Day: Public Lands and Liberty

As Americans head to cottages, campgrounds, lakes, and parks to celebrate Independence Day, ConservAmerica remembers why we’ve protected and passed public lands on to generations of Americans.

There has been much reporting in recent weeks about the rekindling of the Sagebrush Rebellion and western lawmakers calling for federal lands to be “returned” to the states for management. We’ll leave the legal arguments against ceding control of federal lands for others. Almost all of the reporting on the issue purports that selling off public lands is a plank in the Republican Party platform, a suggestion that raises our hackles.

In March, Michigan Republican Dan Benishek ushered the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Wilderness to the president’s desk. It was the first wilderness bill signed into law since 2009.

Theodore Roosevelt saw public land protection as a continuance of the same spirit found in Philadelphia in 1776:

“The ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.”

John Saylor, a Republican who served the people of Pennsylvania in Congress, also connected our public lands to our spirit of independence and our pursuit of freedom:

“The people of all America love the land which … made it possible for us to realize our great freedoms – not only our freedom from fear and want but also those other great freedoms of religion, of the press, of speech that have come to a people so richly endowed with natural resources and thereby blessed with independence.”

If Saylor were around today, he would be the ring leader, working tirelessly to pass Colorado Rep. Tipton’s Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, Idaho Rep. Simpson’s Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, Nevada Rep. Amodei’s Pine Forest Range Recreation Enhancement Act, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller’s Lyon County Economic Development and Conservation Act, Tennessee Sens. Corker and Alexander’s Tennessee Wilderness Act, and Washington Rep. Reichert’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and the Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act.

All told, Republicans, at this very moment, have proposed wilderness designation for more than 519,000 acres. And that’s not counting Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick’s work to protect the arctic plain of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

Why so much land over so much of the map?

According to Calvin Coolidge:

“There is healing in the trees for tired minds and for our overburdened spirits, there is strength in the hills, if only we will lift up our eyes. Remember that nature is your great restorer.”

Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover thought in similar terms:

“The spiritual uplift, the goodwill, cheerfulness and optimism that accompanies every expedition to the outdoors is the peculiar spirit that our people need in times of suspicion and doubt.”

The venerable father of American political conservatism, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, saw the Devine as the architect of public lands:

“My mother took us to services at the Episcopal church. Yet she always said that God was not just inside the four walls of a house of worship, but everywhere — in the rising sun over Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, a splash of water along the nearby Salt or Verde rivers, or clouds driving over the Estrella Mountains, south of downtown. I’ve always thought of God in those terms.”

Our public lands are the continuance of conservative ideals which place equal value on the needs of coming generations, a font of our political democracy, and are mystical places. Dwight Eisenhower knew this:

“As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”

Yet, Sagebrush Rebellion-types claim public lands infringe upon their personal liberty. The great conservative icon Ronald Reagan begged to differ:

“The preservation of parks, wilderness, and wildlife has also aided liberty by keeping alive the 19th century sense of adventure and awe with which our forefathers greeted the American West. Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution. In our own time, the nearly universal appreciation of these preserved landscapes, restored waters, and cleaner air through outdoor recreation is a modern expression of our freedom and leisure to enjoy the wonderful life that generations past have built for us.”

As we celebrate the 238th anniversary of our American independence, let us remember that our cherished public lands enrich—rather than detract–our liberty and freedom.

Richard Nixon succinctly noted, just as the patriots of 1776 enjoyed:

“Clean air, clean water, open spaces — these should once again be the birthright of every American.”

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