Defenders of public lands are needed now

  Gifford Pinchot, pioneer in American forestry and conservation, learned the hard way about political power and influence. In his autobiography, Breaking New Ground, he recorded going West late in the 19th century to study Western forests. Instead, he discovered that commercial interests controlled and exploited land and people.

Pinchot wrote: "Principalities like the Homestake Mine in the Black Hills, the Anaconda Mine in the Rockies, Marcus Daly's feudal overlordship of the Bitterroot Valley, and Miller and Lux's vast holdings of flocks and herds and control of grazing lands on the Pacific slope -- these and others showed their hands or their teeth."

In one sense, I fear little has changed. In reviewing the past year, I find corporate influence in public policy has grown more dominant and more blatant.

Under George W. Bush, industry people are in key positions throughout the government, serving the corporate cause and dismantling environmental programs and agencies.

My primary concern is for public lands. The administration has moved to disassemble and privatize national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and the areas under the Bureau of Land Management. We should not allow it, for public lands are the heart and body and soul of the West. Take away the public lands from the environs of Albuquerque, Boise, Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle, and they would be ordinary places. Take away the public lands and there wouldn't be much to the economy, either. Public lands are the last open spaces, last wilderness, last wildlife haven. Without public lands the West would be impoverished. And much the same can be said for public lands in the rest of the country.

Professional leaders of the agencies, however, have been reduced to messengers for the administration. When snowmobile manufacturers sued the government over the Clinton-era ban on the use of their mechanical monsters in Yellowstone National Park, the Bush administration eliminated the ban and gave the industry what it wanted. But in December a federal court judge upheld the ban, reaffirming that "the National Park Service is bound by a conservation mandate, and that mandate trumps all other considerations." The judge recognized that noise and air pollution do not belong in one of the great natural sanctuaries on the continent.

But it alarms me to read of administration plans to "privatize" public lands and "outsource" jobs to private contractors. Up to 70 percent of all full-time jobs, including rangers, archaeologists, biologists, geologists, hydrologists, firefighters and historians could be privatized, starting next year, maybe even in 2004. Piece by piece, the parks, then the forests, and the other public lands will be on the block contracted out to the lowest bidders.

Putting the National Park Service out to bid makes about as much sense as privatizing the Marine Corps.

Meanwhile, officials claim fees for public recreation are necessary to raise funds to protect natural resources. They are placing the burden on local administrators to serve as fee collectors and marketers of recreation as a commodity. It's a terrible idea. National parks are being reduced to popcorn playgrounds, theme parks in the Disney mode. This is only the beginning. Without a sharp reversal in direction, all of our public lands, the landed heritage of the people, will be up for grabs by moneyed America.

The government's role in recreation should be to support conservation, physical fitness and healthy outdoor leisure away from a mechanized super-civilized world. Public parks and forests at all levels enable Americans to absorb the "feel" of nature -- of plants, animals, natural features and weather. I hope that we may safeguard these special places for the benefit of the children of our generation and generations to come.

Enos Mills, father of Rocky Mountain National Park, wrote early in the last century that "Without outdoor life, all that is best in civilization will be smothered." I will add that we need these sanctuaries as an antidote to the pessimism of our time. The natural world, after all, has been a factor in the search for happiness since humankind began. "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords," Theodore Roosevelt once said. To which I will add that strong support of public lands is a thoroughly patriotic response. I hope that 2004 will mark the age of awakening, reversing course to reclaim the public interest.

Michael Frome is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a retired professor of environmental education at Western Washington University in Bellingham. His latest book is Greenspeak : Fifty Years of Environmental Muckraking and Advocacy.