Yellowstone land swap stinks

  Dear HCN,

High-powered environmentalists, stealthily working behind the scenes, have persuaded President Clinton to support a $65 million land exchange that will rescue Yellowstone National Park from the proposed New World Mine (HCN, 9/2/96).

I wish I could be pleased by this news, but I am not.

Like many Americans, I consider the mining proposal for that site a dubious adventure that would benefit Crown Butte's stockholders at an unacceptable risk to a national treasure. Some developments simply ought not be permitted, and should this one pass regulatory muster, I would favor buying out Crown Butte's rights, employing the power of eminent domain if necessary. Surely, in a trillion-dollar-plus federal budget, money for a buy-out can be found.

But would I favor a land swap? No. Not again. Land swaps fall on the wrong side of environmental justice issues. Several years ago, as the chair of the Sierra Club in Montana (I'm no longer a member), I defended another land exchange in the Yellowstone area, believing it to be the best solution to the vexing problem of consolidating high-quality wildlife habitat adjacent to the park. That land swap unquestionably was to the benefit of the Greater Yellowstone natural region, but I am not convinced that it resulted in a net environmental gain for the nation.

Development merely was displaced to other regions. The partisans of Yellowstone protected their backyard by exporting environmental degradation.

The twofold rationale for that swap, which will be the rationale for the Crown Butte swap, was that (a) the Yellowstone region's lands were more valuable than the lands to which development was displaced, and (b) a swap was the only mechanism available, for politicians obstinately oppose appropriating money for large-scale buyouts. There was just enough truth in those arguments to wrap the land exchange in the robes of noble purpose, and to push it through Congress over the objections of what appeared to be a shrill minority.

In retrospect, I wish I had withheld my blessing. The ink had scarcely dried on the paperwork before the chainsaws roared and trees hundreds of miles away from Yellowstone began crashing to the ground. Yellowstone's gain was the nation's loss elsewhere, and the righteous arguments advanced by the advocates of Yellowstone rang hollow indeed. The good intentions of the swap's supporters notwithstanding, that deal represented the triumph of arrogance and selfishness, not practical nobility or responsible conservation.

Thinking locally, but acting globally, is a dangerous approach to conservation, and there is no better example of this than the proposed Crown Butte land exchange. Most likely, that swap will be a zero-sum game, improving the environs of the park by sanctioning environmental degradation elsewhere. That is neither a just nor a responsible policy, and we ought not to adopt it.

James R. Conner

Kalispell, Montana

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