A monumental shift for public lands

  I flew into the sprawling city of Phoenix the other day not expecting a nature experience or a political revelation. My colleague and I rented a car and, after an appointment in the city, fought through an hour of bumper-to-bumper afternoon traffic on our way north to Flagstaff. What a relief it was to finally see the city recede in the rearview mirror, and the endless suburbs of the flat desert give way to a series of unpopulated hills.

Eager to stretch our legs, we pulled off the highway a half hour later and rolled half a mile down a dirt road until we were stopped by a sign: Agua Fria National Monument. Here was one of Bill Clinton’s last-minute land grabs that so infuriated some Westerners and members of the incoming Bush administration — one of the19 national monuments and conservation areas on public lands that he declared with executive powers.

The place didn’t look like a hotbed of hostilities. A single car sat by the sign.

We hiked down a coarse-sanded wash. With each step the ground grew soggier, the hills closer. At a stunted willow tree a raucous cackling suddenly surrounded us. In the fading light, several robin-sized birds chased each other across the hillside: rock wrens setting up nesting territories in February.

A few hundred yards farther came the sound of water. Our little wash, which by now had a trickle of water, spilled into the Agua Fria River. It was a sweet spot. A giant slab of granite, its surface smoothed by floodwaters, made a natural seat from which to view the river’s meandering course. Other people had apparently sat here over the years: On a rocky cliff face 20 feet above us, we spotted a panel of petroglyphs — human and animal figures, probably centuries old, etched into the reddish-brown rock.

The 70,000-acre Agua Fria National Monument may not be much of a tourist attraction yet, but sitting just 40 miles from the border of Phoenix, its subtle charms offer a welcome respite from urbanity. Perhaps Clinton wasn’t a land grabber, but a far-sighted leader who understood the needs of an urbanizing population.

Well, not likely. Politics and ego were Clinton’s game, and when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt presented him with the idea of creating a public lands legacy, he was shrewd enough to latch on. Clinton knew he needed to do something to earn the support of conservationists, especially given the times he’d failed them in favor of big industry — allowing salvage logging of old growth on national forests, short-changing endangered species protection and caving in on pesticides regulation. He also had a big-enough ego to want a place in the history books, next to Teddy Roosevelt, as a conservation hero.

These aren’t the most noble motivations, but one can’t help but wish that George W. Bush would attune his own political ego in a similar manner. The fact that people value public lands more for their aesthetic and natural qualities than they do for their minerals, logs or cattle fodder has been lost on the current administration.

Unbridled energy development, not conservation, has become the overriding mandate from on high. Through a series of executive directives and industry-friendly court settlements, the Bureau of Land Management -- the agency responsible for managing 270 million acres of public domain, including the new national monuments — has been told to accelerate oil and gas leasing and drilling with as little environmental oversight as possible. Large swaths of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have become battlegrounds, pitting environmental groups and even conservative Republican ranchers against the energy companies and public agencies.

Bush’s abysmal record on the public lands has created a climate of fear in the BLM and activated the environmental movement to a degree not seen since the days of Ronald Reagan and his dam, dig and drill Interior Secretary, James Watt. It has also handed Bush’s Democratic challengers tremendous ammunition heading into the election.

So, Mr. Bush, though I’d prefer you went back to owning a baseball team next year, here’s some advice: Take a page out of Clinton’s book and protect some chunks of the public domain. You could start with Utah’s San Rafael Swell. Then call off the oil and gas rigs heading toward western Colorado’s Roan Plateau and New Mexico’s Otero Mesa. You could pronounce that some places are so special and rare that we must not let man’s short-term material needs despoil them.

You would be right, whether you believe it or not.

Paul Larmer is the publisher of High Country News ([email protected]) and editor of the new book: Give and Take: How the Clinton Administration’s Public Lands Offensive Transformed the American West.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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