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This Land is OUR Land

Untamed nature & the removal of humans.

By Tim Findley

Grazing land, Nevada © Linda Dufurrena

"We must make this an insecure and inhospitable place for capitalists and their projects.... We must reclaim the roads and plowed land, halt dam construction, tear down existing dams, free shackled rivers and return to wilderness millions of tens of millions of acres of presently settled land."—David Foreman, Earth First!

Wilderness is a fundamental element of American tradition. At least from the time of colonial settlement, the presence of untamed nature has served as a catalyst not only for American opportunity, but as a source of American dreams. The westward push across the continent offered escape as well as it did challenge. It promised peace as well as adventure. Wilderness became ingrained in the American psyche as among no other population of the world.

So certain of this was a young University of Wisconsin historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, that in 1893 he introduced a sensational thesis suggesting that the unique character of American democracy was defined and developed by the nation’s continuous experience with its frontier. Turner, just 31 at the time, marked the independent spirit and adaptability of American society not only to a commonly shared experience with the wild as expressed by men like Boone and Crockett, but to the ideals of reforming thought that could be found in leaders like Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln.

"These are high times, by God, when a young buckskin can tell a British general how to fight." —English General Edward Braddock in 1755, after rejecting the advice of George Washington

Ironically perhaps, Turner put forth his thesis at the Chicago Columbian Exposition meant to commemorate 400 years since the voyage of Columbus, but delayed a year by a Wall Street crash. It was also the year in which the frontier was said to have been finally and forever closed. And it was a year near the peak of an episode many thought had already destroyed the nation’s wildlands. The plains were conquered, the buffalo nearly wiped out. The northern forests were for the first time being harvested at a rate beyond regeneration. Range wars on grossly overstocked grazing areas of the West threatened destruction of the land as well as the settlements. At least one species each year was said to have been going extinct, due in part to the rapacious and unbridled slaughter of birds just to decorate women’s hats. Nevertheless, Turner’s controversial thesis captured the public imagination.

"The very materialism that has been urged against the West was accompanied by ideals of equality, of the exaltation of the common man, of national expansion, that make it a profound mistake to write of the West as though it were engrossed in mere material ends. It has been, and is, preeminently a region of ideals, mistaken or not."—Frederick Jackson Turner, The Problem of the West, 1896

Within a decade, and virtually by chance act of an assassin, Theodore Roosevelt literally rode to the rescue of America’s wilderness. Roosevelt, with unprecedented, yet lightly resisted, arbitrary authority, put under federal protection some 230 million acres at a rate of 87,000 acres a day during one year of his administration. He established five national parks and 18 national monuments.

But Roosevelt never preserved land alone without attention to the value of natural resources, and he scoffed at the "nature fakers" who saw no purpose in even managed use of natural resources. To the contrary, as Roosevelt preserved land at a stunning pace, he also opened the agricultural development of land in the West especially with history-making reclamation projects.

"Conservation is the foresighted utilization, preservation and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands and minerals for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time."—Gifford Pinchot, T.R.’s founding chief of the U.S. Forest Service

With the frontier "closed" in the 20th century the nation melded into a new episode of population shift that brought more and more people into the cities and began the long steady decline of agrarian existence and industry. Family farms were vanishing, the percentage of the population engaged in agriculture was falling toward two percent or less and the direct touch with real wilderness on the boundaries of home was an uncommon experience. Only a relative few dedicated naturalists, many of them working on behalf of farmers and ranchers for the government itself, ventured far into the still-remote regions of the West.

It was the establishment and improvement of highways and roads related to national defense along with the affordability of automobiles that was responsible for reestablishing a sense of "frontier" that Turner could not have foreseen. Now, Americans were in a sense capable of time travel on weekends or summer vacations back into a romantically primeval and even impressionably "savage" land in part left for them by the foresight of Roosevelt and Pinchot. The weekend mountaineers and summer sojourners found much to be admired within the increasingly crowded borders of the national parks, but those pristine and awesome sights often only provided disturbing contrast to resource production in the nearby forests, more and more commonly conducted by unseen and unaccountable corporate organizations.

"Going to the woods is going home, for I imagine that we came from the woods originally."—John Muir

Americans had lost that sheltering yet challenging sense of frontier wilderness at their doorsteps, but social custom, particularly among the vast middle class, provided that they could easily reclaim it on a part-time basis called "vacation." As much as ever, wilderness was a part of the American psyche and declared to be an essential part of their heritage.

In the early 1960s, following another period of concern for the overexploitation of resources that could be seen on Sunday drives near a clear-cut, Congress moved to provide statutory protection for still "unspoiled" lands. The Wilderness Act of 1964 had enthusiastic public support. So much so, in fact, that although the Act called for a modest nine million acres of new wilderness, politicians eager to capitalize on public sentiment quickly added more.

"If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must give them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."—President Lyndon B. Johnson, upon signing the 1964 Wilderness Act

Today, more than 104 million acres of the U.S. is designated as wilderness. It is nearly five percent of the total U.S. landmass, and almost three percent of the continental 48 states.

This too was something uniquely American. No other nation in history, certainly no world superpower of any era, has ever set aside so much of its own landmass as restricted or entirely protected from even the blade of a plow. By the 1970s, even the new American ambassador to the Soviet Union, John Kenneth Galbraith, said he was astonished to discover that more than 40 percent of the United States was still "owned" by federal and state governments.

America did not lack for parks or for wilderness. Indeed, most of the land in the western states—more than 87 percent in Nevada alone—was controlled not by the states, but by the federal government. The map of the West, with its so nearly perfect rectangles seems almost to have been drawn on some eastern dinner napkin. In fact, that is not far from true about the sketchy creation of boundaries during and after the civil war that were drawn for purely political purposes. Western appeals for "equal footing" with states east of the Mississippi in their autonomy from Washington have always been ignored.

At various times, and for certain purposes, large portions of the West had been given away to the railroads or the big mines, sometimes to the timber companies and—usually with strings attached—to the farmers. Ranchers, though their stock was spread all across the West, were treated more as tenants expected to share in the cost of upkeep on federal lands.

Although wilderness was open to everyone and the visitor numbers surged briefly in the ’60s, the truly remote and roadless wild areas were too great a challenge for most. Still politically supportive of wilderness expansion, Americans in general seemed satisfied in just knowing it was there.

"Five years is all we have left if we are going to preserve any kind of quality in the world."—Paul Erlich, Stanford University Professor, Earth Day, 1970

Yet there was a next phase of exploitation, led in the last three decades by groups eager to cash in on public sentiment and fear. The Sierra Club did it for cause—primarily an end to old-growth logging. They were soon surpassed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which disguised its aims behind noble claims to be "saving" great places. TNC and its management by corporate giants did it for land.

In the 1990s environmentalists accomplished a virtual coup over federal land policy, capturing the cabinet role of Secretary of the Interior and placing many former activists in top bureaucratic positions. The Clinton administration responded with admittedly political motives, rivaling Roosevelt in the set-aside of more than six million acres and proposing the roadless protection of 60 million more.

By most surveys, polls, and research, Americans are concerned about the relentless loss of family farms and small community values supported by local industry. Most of us can still trace our own roots to a farm or ranch somewhere, and even those who can’t still commonly follow the back roads in search of what Frederick Jackson Turner found to be the American character.

Yet there is confusion in refinding what he described as the "meeting point between savagery and civilization." Americans seem not to want to return to the frontier for its challenges. Rather, they seem to want it preserved as a possible means of escape, both literally and spiritually.

Just last November, voters in 22 states approved ballot measures that committed $2.9 billion to the acquisition or restoration of still more "public" land and open space. The two largest measures, one in California worth $1.5 billion and one in Nevada worth nearly $90 million, were both quietly sponsored by The Nature Conservancy.

According to the Land Trust Alliance, 139 successful state ballot measures in 2002 amounted to approximately $10 billion in conservation-related funding. Again apparently without general voter knowledge, most of the measures were backed by one or more of the hundreds of land "trust" organizations that have emerged since the 1980s and are now linked under the advisory umbrella of the Land Trust Alliance, vaguely considered to be itself a spinoff of The Nature Conservancy.

"Does all the foregoing mean that Wild Earth and the Wildlands Project advocate the end of industrial civilization? Most assuredly."
—John Davis, Editor,
Wild Earth Magazine

As The Nature Conservancy shut its doors even to its own members last spring to privately consider the effects of investigations by Range and The Washington Post, the corporate-controlled $3 billion "nonprofit" organization was under consideration for investigation by Congress. Open hearings on its dealings and practices is the last thing that "Nature’s Landlord" wants to see happen, not only because of media scrutiny, but because of long-withheld resentment of the fat cat land-grabbing organization by other environmental groups.

Many of them still "owe" too much to TNC to be overly critical in public. The Nature Conservancy has spread its money and its influence around in a broad smear to most less-wealthy green-cause groups, with possibly the notable exception of the Sierra Club.

Certainly, TNC "green" helped fund whatever research it took for Reed Noss and David Foreman to come up with their "Wildlands Project." And it is no accident that TNC-acquired properties in the West, as well as Clinton’s "monuments," seem to conform quite neatly as dots waiting to be linked up in the "wildlands" dream that would create corridors and core areas of wilderness through as much as half the continental United States, most of it in the West.

The idea already has the backing of at least one congressman, Democrat Rob Andrews of New Jersey, who has introduced legislation that would gobble up most of the northern Rockies as a lynchpin for the plan (see page 43).

Americans believe in wilderness. We in this country need answer to no one in the demonstrated national support for preservation of the environment. It is at the heart of our customs and at the core of our laws, more so than anywhere else in the world.

But that does not make us fools. We may entertain ourselves and indulge our children with the notions of ultimate wild freedom that is embedded in the foundation of our social order. We can have due pride for how we have preserved this continent far beyond the exploitation of doomsayers and opportunists who limit their knowledge to the mistakes made in the process. We can share in the same dream and the same self-sufficiency that Frederick Jackson Turner said defined us. We may by that same democratic system vote as Americans always have for yet more land to be returned to nature. But no American with a heart for his own people, and no politician with courage beyond daft opportunism would vote to deny the liberty that wilderness made possible.

The Wildlands Project would not be a mistake. It would be a travesty that would rip this nation apart with an unimaginable fantasy of "undiscovery."

Investigative reporter Tim Findley has been watching the Wildlands movement for years, and connecting the dots as it quietly reaches for more and more land.

Fall 2003 Contents

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