Special Interest or Public Interest ?

 

Ray Ring's HCN report “Champions Go Both Ways – Two Weeks in the West” in the April 27th edition was sure to spur debate. The report focused on Obama Administration appointments at the Interior Department which were described as plums and pay backs which have been handed out to members of the environmental establishment in a manner similar to the way the Bush Administration rewarded supporters from extractive industries.

You can read the article and the multitude of comments from readers it has inspired on line.  And while these terms were not used in either the article or (so far) in on-line comments, it seems to me that the debate about Ray's report is essentially about the difference between special interests and the public interest.

Environmental organizations tell the world that they operate in the public interest. The basis for this claim is the Public Trust Doctrine.  First formulated by the Roman Emperor Justinian, the PTD declares that air, water and the shores of navigable rivers and streams are public property which can not be owned or controlled by private interests. The doctrine has been carried into American common law via the Magna Carta and English Common Law. It has been argued that laws like the Endangered Species Act have extended the concept of the public trust to apply to the survival of animals and plant species.

Politicians, however, treat environmental organizations not as representatives of the public interest but as just another special interest whose power, influence – and campaign contributions – need to be considered and weighed against the power, influence – and campaign contributions – of corporate and other private interests.

It seems to me that the environmental establishment has, for the most part, accepted the status of special interest while some environmental establishment organizations have wholeheartedly embraced that role. This is reflected in the proliferation of 501-c-4 environmental organizations which, while non-profit, can lobby for specific legislation. This in turn has corresponded to a waning of interest in claims and campaigns based on the public trust.

To be fair, it is a bit disingenuous to blame the environmental establishment for accepting a role which has been thrust upon it by politicians and society. In our society and in our politics many things that were traditionally public have been redefined as private – a process which continues to this day. Water privatization and air pollution trading are two contemporary examples. Privatization of the air and water are criticized by Indigenous activists as contrary to the essential public nature of these elements.

Most Americans are unaware of the extent to which the public interest as a guiding concept in our public life has already been eroded and continues under attack today. The drive to redefine water, air, wildlife and all things traditionally public as private is a radical development which conflicts with the bedrock values which prevailed during most of human history and which persist today in Indigenous societies and within our own traditions. Whether our children and grandchildren will enjoy the benefits of the Public Trust Doctrine, however, appears to be in doubt. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!