I flew into the sprawling city of Phoenix recently not expecting a nature experience or a political revelation. My colleague and I rented a car and, after an appointment in the city, fought through an hour of bumper-to-bumper afternoon traffic on our way north to Flagstaff. What a relief it was to finally see the city recede in the rearview mirror, and the endless suburbs of the flat desert give way to a series of unpopulated hills.
Eager to stretch our legs, we pulled off the highway a half hour
later and rolled half a mile down a dirt road, until we were
stopped by a sign: Agua Fria National Monument. Here was one of
Bill Clinton’s last-minute "land grabs" that so infuriated
some Westerners and members of the incoming Bush administration
— one of the 19 national monuments and conservation areas on
public lands that he designated using his executive powers.
The place didn’t look like a hotbed of hostilities.
A single car sat by the sign.
We hiked down a
coarse-sanded wash. With each step the ground grew soggier, the
hills closer. At a stunted willow tree, a raucous cackling suddenly
surrounded us. In the fading light, several robin-sized birds
chased each other across the hillside: cactus wrens setting up
nesting territories in February.
A few hundred yards
farther came the sound of water. Our little wash, which by now had
a trickle of water, spilled into the Agua Fria River. It was a
sweet spot. A giant slab of granite, its surface smoothed by
floodwaters, made a natural seat from which to view the
river’s meandering course. Other people had apparently sat
here over the years: On a rocky cliff face 20 feet above us, we
spotted a panel of petroglyphs — human and animal figures,
probably centuries old, etched into the reddish-brown rock.
The 70,000-acre Agua Fria National Monument may not be
much of a tourist attraction yet, but sitting just 40 miles from
the border of Phoenix, its subtle charms offer a welcome respite
from urbanity. Is it possible that President Clinton wasn’t a
"land grabber" — that he was actually a far-sighted leader
who understood the needs of an urbanizing populace?
not likely. Politics and ego were Clinton’s game, and when
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt presented him with the idea of
creating a public lands legacy, he was shrewd enough to latch on to
it. Clinton knew he needed to do something to earn the support of
conservationists, especially given the times he’d failed them
in favor of big industry — allowing salvage logging of
old-growth trees on national forests, short-changing endangered
species protection and caving in on pesticides regulation. He also
had a big-enough ego to want a place in the history books, next to
Teddy Roosevelt, as a conservation hero.
aren’t the most noble motivations, but one can’t help
but wish that George W. Bush would attune his own political ego in
a similar manner. The fact that most people value public lands more
for their aesthetic and natural qualities than they do for their
minerals, logs or cattle fodder has been lost on the current
Unbridled energy development, not
conservation, has become the overriding mandate from on high.
Through a series of executive directives and industry-friendly
court settlements, the Bureau of Land Management — the agency
responsible for managing 270 million acres of public domain,
including the new national monuments — has been told to
accelerate oil and gas leasing and drilling with as little
environmental oversight as possible. Large swaths of New Mexico,
Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have become battlegrounds, pitting
environmental groups and even conservative Republican ranchers
against the energy companies and public agencies.
Bush’s abysmal record on the public lands has created a
climate of fear in the BLM and activated the environmental movement
to a degree not seen since the days of Ronald Reagan and his dam,
dig and drill Interior Secretary, James Watt. It has also handed
Bush’s Democratic challengers tremendous ammunition heading
into the election.
So, Mr. Bush, though I’d prefer
you went back to owning a baseball team next year, here’s
some advice: Take a page out of Clinton’s book and protect
some chunks of the public domain. You could start with Utah’s
San Rafael Swell. Then call off the oil and gas rigs heading toward
western Colorado’s Roan Plateau and New Mexico’s Otero
Mesa. Pronounce that some places are so special and rare that we
must not let man’s short-term material needs despoil them.
You would be right, whether you believe it or not.