By any standard political measure, July was not the best of times for the protection of the last remaining wild places in this country.
On July 16 came a ruling by a Wyoming
court challenging the legality of the Roadless Area Conservation
Rule -- a policy to protect 58.5 million acres of untrammeled
national forests and grasslands from road construction and most
commercial timber cutting.
Oddly, the court implied that
three years of public comment and analysis, 600 public meetings,
and 1.6 million public comments did not constitute adequate public
Then, the Department of Agriculture proposed
to eliminate Alaska's Tongass, North America's largest intact
temperate rainforest, from the protections of the roadless rule. In
the early morning hours of July 18, the House of Representatives
defeated an amendment that would have prevented the Bush
administration from further weakening the roadless rule.
These setbacks followed announcements by the Department of Interior
ending future wilderness reviews and recommendations to Congress on
vast swaths of Western public land, and a new ruling that could
allow for old cow and wagon trails to be converted into roads that
will cut across parks, wilderness, and wildlife refuges.
Many environmentalists will suggest that this perfect storm of bad
news spells the end of wilderness as we know it. On the other side,
some in the timber lobby will continue to push for road
construction and logging as a tonic for unhealthy forests, curing
ailing economies, restoring community values, and jobs.
These blithe, and largely incorrect, assertions by both
environmentalists and commodity interests mask a larger and far
more important fact.
People don't want to see our last
remaining landscapes developed. Not for trees. Not for oil. Not for
gold or silver. People feel this way not because they necessarily
believe the environmentalists and disbelieve the timber industry.
Support for wild places is deeply engrained in each of us and is
influenced equally by the settlement patterns of 150 years ago and
the urban sprawl of the past few decades.
are the best of what remains from the 1.8 billion acres of
public-domain lands that the United States acquired through
purchase, treaty or conquest. More than any other single factor, it
was the land -- and healthy doses of mettle, faith and dreams --
that shaped the collective consciousness of our nation.
Our public lands are the anvil on which the westward expansion and
our "manifest destiny" were hammered out. But unlike other
industrialized nations of the world, we benefited from visionary
leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, who recognized the importance
of untamed landscapes to our national character. They controlled
the impulse to exploit our lands and waters to the last, and
created a network of public lands for future generations to use and
enjoy as a birthright. One untidy issue the Bush administration
needs to come to terms with is this fact: 95 percent of the 1.6
million people who participated in the public process associated
with the roadless policy called for stronger protection of roadless
areas. Could it be that this overwhelming sentiment was motivated
by the past decade's accelerated loss of open space, forests,
wetlands, and farmland -- a pace double that of the previous
But the real question is not over the future of
the roadless policy. It is what do we, as Americans, want our
landscape to look like in 15 and 150 years? Over two centuries, the
abundance of our natural resources allowed and motivated us to
build our homes, feed our people and defend our shores.
Through all of the legal machinations and political maneuvering
over the roadless policy, one incontrovertible fact remains clear.
The mark of a mature nation is not measured in its ability to
exploit land for wood, oil, or gold.
It is about
demonstrating restraint and leaving choices for future generations.