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for people who care about the West

Babbit followed 'the tyranny of the majority'

  Dear HCN,

I would like to respond to Glenn Koepke's letter, "Don't glorify Babbitt" (HCN, 3/12/01: Don't glorify Babbitt). Mr. Koepke presents his arguments with enviable skill, and articulates what may be the majority position in the West regarding public-lands management - that the lands exist to be utilized in traditional ways, to produce timber, minerals, watershed protection, grazing, etc. I agree with Mr. Koepke that the Clinton administration, and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, have, in Koepke's words, "said to hell with those in rural areas devoted to producing food and fiber for the urban majority."

As a rural person who has produced both, and with respect for Mr. Koepke's views, I will try to explain why I think this has happened.

The minority of U.S. citizens who concern themselves with the fate of the public lands may, as Koepke claims, be urbanites. If so, they see firsthand the effects of the rapidly rising population of the U.S. They are the ones driving in the traffic jams, breathing the smog, and listening to the ever-rising crescendo of industry and commerce. Can they be blamed for holding out the hope that on the public lands there can be some respite from the insatiable demands of mankind that dominate their landscape? That in some place beyond the urban horizon there is a place with no roads, where wildlife can survive without the groan of the forester's chain saw, or the boom of the miner's explosives?

Can we hate them for reading about the corporate logging of the Cascades or the Bitterroots, or the destruction of BLM lands in Montana's Little Rockies by Pegasus Gold, and then sending their money to the Sierra Club? Voters in urban areas have no concept of the kind of sustainable, benevolent management Mr. Koepke refers to, because they've never seen it.

To be truthful, neither have I. Working as a logger, timber thinner, tree planter, and on mine-reclamation crews, all I have seen is the drastic exploitation of the public lands by industry, and by private individuals in pursuit of profit. Certainly local communities benefited from this exploitation, economically, in jobs, and goods sold, but they are, as Koepke points out, a minority. The majority, the millions of people throughout the U.S. who are also owners of the public lands, lost their chance to see and enjoy those lands in a more pristine condition. They lost the chance to fish in a river unmuddied from logging, or walk or hunt through old-growth timber.

When they came in their thousands to comment favorably on Clinton's roadless plan, they were saying, "We, too, own the public lands, and we want to see them preserved from further exploitation by industry." It was an example of democracy, or as Edward Abbey would have said, it was simply "the tyranny of the majority," this time, for once, in the service of conservation.

Why did the Clinton administration, and Mr. Babbitt, respond to this demand? An economic model, which timber and mining interests love to use, will answer the question.

As population rises, and human activities cover more and more of the land, what commodity becomes more scarce, and thus more valuable? Unexploited spaces. Undammed rivers. Unlogged forests. Wildlife. Solitude. Room to wander, hunt, shoot, fish. All found on the public lands, and all lost as soon as "management" as we have seen it practiced traditionally, is brought to bear. I challenge Mr. Koepke to fly in an airplane from Montana to Florida, on a clear day, seated by the window, and declare that we need more roads and human activity on the public lands of the West.

Mr. Koepke does not discuss the fact that it is the economy that has wrought the changes which have orphaned rural communities. Face it, 10 times more beef is produced on private, rain-drenched lands in Mississippi than on the parched BLM lands of the West. The Canadians have swamped us with cheap timber, Weyerhaeuser produces pulp on its own lands on a 25-year rotation in Alabama (at a terrific environmental cost, which makes the unlogged and unroaded public lands of our nation even more irreplaceable), copper from plundered lands in Africa ensures that, for now, there will be no more Berkeley Pits opening up in Montana.

Americans, myself proudly among them, have embraced the twin systems of democracy and capitalism, both of which have caused the decline of the rural "communities of place" that Mr. Koepke understandably reveres. I share his reverence, but refuse to place the blame for their decline on an eight-year-long presidential administration, where it does not belong.

At this very specific point in time, and dependent on a million economic factors beyond our control, the public lands are most valuable as habitat for our fellow creatures, places for our citizens to pursue something other than an economic agenda. Why is that so repugnant?

Someday we will look back on these times and realize that we were like a group of children in a play school who could not quit fighting over all the toys, until someone ( in this case, history) simply took them all away.

Hal Herring
Corvallis, Montana