Why Americans need to stand our ground and get our hands dirty for public lands.
Amidst the daily hustle and bustle in America, the land itself continues to write its history. This is the story of the continent, of an economic system. It is the story of displacement, the story of home. America as a legal entity was spiritually founded by the displaced of other nations seeking refuge on its shores. Some of those peoples went on to displace others by stealing them from their lands or by taking the land itself. And here we all are in America, trying to make a home in this country, in ourselves. We still face the forces of those histories and economics in the continuing displacement of people within our urban, rural, tribal, and public lands. The current Interior Department head and others in Congress apparently wish, against our collective consent, to drive the public out of these public spaces either by raising entrance costs, degrading the value of the landscape with unwise development projects, or simply by privatizing these lands at any cost. We cannot let our parks and wildlands go gentle into that goodnight. They are our inheritance. We must fight for them. In doing so we fight for ourselves.
These lands were set aside by our more mindful ancestors so that they may continue to exist. The stories of these parks, monuments, historical sites, preserves, and refuges—yes, nature needs its refugee camps as well—are the stories of ourselves. They are our wellsprings of common history, solace, and inspiration. These vast landscapes, waterways, and starry skies are our sanctuaries, our holy places, our Garden of Eden. They provide a respite, an essential grace, which grounds us in ourselves, in this planet, in the sacred within and around us. Where would Buddha be without the tree? Mohammed without the caves and Moses without the desert? Jesus without the mount? Us without the landscapes from which our stories formed? If we allow our remaining lands to be destroyed by the carelessness of political and economic expediency, with the thoughtless belief as some Congressional members have asserted that “nothing is there to defend,” then we ourselves must be considered nothing and will be destroyed with similar dismissals.
American public and sacred lands, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Tongass National Forest, Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and the Greater Chaco Region are the crown jewels of our democracy. Unlike in countries with historical monarchies, our public wealth was never intended to be locked away in the towers, museums, or bank vaults of economically privileged individuals. These lands were intentionally set aside, by our legally and duly elected representatives, to be used by everyone and everything—wildlife included. If we allow our public land to be taken from us, we collectively lose our stories, our histories. The stories that came before, the stories as yet unwritten. We raise our children in hope they will be brave and intelligent enough to climb mountains, touch the sky, and return safely back to our aging arms on earth; to sail and chart their own courses on the rivers and oceans of the world so they may learn to navigate life while still moving forward. But what will happen to our children, to us as a species, if all the mountaintops are removed? If all the rivers are blocked by fences proclaiming “Private Property” as is legally happening in areas of the desert Southwest? What will happen to our imaginations, our spirits, if all that is left is concrete, filled-in valleys, scarred and broken earth? If all the world that can be consumed is done so carelessly and recklessly, what remains to sustain us? We do not need foreign bombs to blow craters in our landscape; humans have long since created “profits” by doing it themselves with machines. Oftentimes, this is deemed an economic necessity for growth and the rest is considered collateral damage. But I ask you what growth are we investing in? Economic growth is not a world apart; it is inextricably linked to humanity’s imaginative growth, to our environment’s health. Marketing is couched in our physical and cultural worlds and words like Apple and Amazon have no intrinsic allure otherwise. All other arguments aside, it is an ill-advised banker who blows up the bank in order to make a short-term investment. You can’t create equity by remodeling a National Park. Thus, even economics dictate that something must be spared, must be protected and saved. Something must be sacred.
If our nation cares about our lands, we must act to protect them. We alone, as the American public, have the power to achieve this.
We, as adults, easily overlook what we were taught as children: the social need to share, to hold things in common. These stories, these lands, are the sources of our communities and the experiences that bind us together. They are valuable in their totality—not just for the price of their mineral, vegetable, or animal organs. Any citizen, lawyer, and elected official should recognize that context is the most valuable thing we as humans can possess. Seeing the whole leads to a comprehensive understanding and that understanding can lead to a shared purpose, a common bond. It was the acknowledgement of this bond that led a generation of people to advocate for the American Antiquities Act signed into law by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. It was written as a direct response to looting and desecration of Native American lands and irresponsible environmental stewardship throughout the country. Made intentionally broad by Congress, the law enacted could immediately and decisively protect areas of historical and scientific value from private economic exploitation. It was strengthened by the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 that instructed the Federal government “in partnership with States, local governments, Indian tribes, and private organizations and individuals to…use measures, including financial and technical assistance, to foster conditions under which our modern society and our prehistoric and historic resources can exist in productive harmony and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations (Section 2 (1)).” [emphasis added]
If our nation cares about our lands, we must act to protect them. We alone, as the American public, have the power to achieve this. It is not something we need to plead and beg and ask for. It is something we have the Constitutional right and obligation to demand. We are a nation founded on the claim that we are all inherently human, regardless of historical circumstances, with a right to a consensual representative government. Despite our frequent failures in living up to these ideals, we as American citizens still do create and control that government. We change and direct it through our votes and when disenfranchised through our vocal revolt in the press and in the streets. We in fact and deed are the people. We are the government. We give a small number of citizens the power to direct our land trust, but these are our lands—not Congress’s, the President’s or a corporation’s. These lands are OUR common ground, commonwealth, and story. We must be consulted on their use and legal due process must be followed. Thus, we demand reasonable public commentary periods with open, accessible civil discussions. We demand the legal and spiritual consent of all vested parties, not just major campaign donors and corporate shareholders. We demand our government finally and fully acknowledge the equality of our fellow citizens in indigenous tribes and give full legal weight to their voices and requirements at the negotiating table surrounding their sacred and cultural survival. We demand the objective, scientific completion of all impact studies prior to the commencement of any physical alteration to these landscapes. We insist those studies are completed by transparent, fully funded and operational departments and agencies. Achieving these demands is the only way to responsibly, ethically, and consensually make informed decisions on our socioeconomic and spiritual investments in these lands. If these requirements are not met, all decisions made in the matter of our lands will be determined as null and void in the court of public opinion. They will be fought in the court of law.
We will not allow our elected leaders to transform us against our will into America’s equivalent of Judas. If we continue permitting our government to let unelected administrators “indefinitely lease” our land trust out from under us—sometimes for two dollars an acre to the lowest corporate bid—will those same politicians and officials ever stop selling us out? The soul of our country resides in our lands, our stories, and in us. It is up to us, We the People, to tell our story and to cherish and protect these lands as our ancestors did before. No one else has that power. It is our responsibility. This land is our hallowed ground. This land is what our democracy is built on. This land is you and me, America. It is up to us to prove that we mountains will not move.
If you would like to hear the voices of ANWR, Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and other threatened national landscapes you can hear the soundscapes of these areas on Threshold Shift at KBOO 90.7 FM.