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Columns » I Spy

Storied Ground

Decoding the rhetoric on the presidential politics of public land



I first came to the west when I was 13 years old, to a wilderness camp outside of Durango, and I returned for six years to work there from age 17 to 22. We lived in a dream land those summers, a fictional fantasy world filled with mountain tops and canyon cliffs, hidden petroglyphs and sacred springs. I learned through experience to be careful in finding and protecting water, and to walk gently around the krytogramic soil.

At summer's end, we lamented the return to the "real world," but there was always someone to laugh at the notion that there was anything unreal about the world we'd been living in for ten weeks.

Six years after my last summer in Durango, I shared the exhilarating hope of a new acknowledgement of the realness of that wild world, listening to Gary Snyder and Terry Tempest Williams rejoice in the wake of Clinton's first inauguration at an environmental symposium at Colorado College. When Williams joined the president four years later on the edge of the Grand Canyon to dedicate the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, it was a coming of age for a generation raised on mountain dialogues and desert solitaires.

On the short list of accomplishments in the Clinton/Gore environmental legacy protecting and preserving public lands from development, logging and drilling, they can cite their employment of the Antiquities Act to protect more acreage in the lower 48 states than any administration in history. In addition to 13 new National Parks, Clinton and Gore have created five new national monuments, including the 164,000 acres of The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado.

Speaking in tongues

Bush avoids details on environmental issues, falling back on the anti-big-government rhetoric that has helped him hoodwink ignorant and undecided voters. "I don't believe in command and control out of Washington, D.C.," Bush said of Clinton's protective proclamations. "I think we ought to be collaborative at the local levels." That's Bushspeak for working with the polluting industries to preserve the status quo.

The process is actually designed with collaboration in mind. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit goes to local resource advisory committees seeking proposals for managing the lands. If they don't come up with a proposal, Babbit recommends the Antiquities Act.

"The downside," according to Scott Groene, Director of the National Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Campaign, "is that Babbit has been criticized for turning over these decisions to the committees." The committees are often unbalanced, Groene told the Independent, made up of people who have a financial interest in public lands. "The process takes it out of the public's control and puts into the hands of a small interest group." It sounds like an ideal process for Bush's bait-and-switch tactics, but so far the process has turned out in favor of environmentalists, since the advisory committees have failed to offer any proposals.

Since Bush took office, Texas has become number one in air and water pollution, toxic releases, carcinogens in the air, developmental toxins in the air, cancer risk, and ten other categories of dangerous air pollutants, according to Molly Ivans in Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. His local "collaboration" consists of his appointment of insiders from agricultural chemical companies to the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, making it into a "captive regulatory agency," in the hands of the industries it was established to regulate.

While Bush claims that "plants must conform to clean air standards," polluters recognize that Bush is speaking in code again. In Texas the standards come from a voluntary emissions reduction program set up under the guidance of two oil-company presidents. "Of the 850 grandfathered polluters, 28 have come up with a plan to reduce pollution, but only three have actually done so. Hell of a program," Ivans quips, noting that the companies participating were among Bush's biggest donors in his '98 gubernatorial race and in the current presidential campaign.

Bush stubbornly denies the causes of ozone depletion, sticking to coded vagaries and repeating that "I don't think we know the solution to global warming yet." Bush starts stumbling when he's pressed. "What the heck. I -- of course there's a lot -- look, global warming needs to be taken very seriously, and I take it seriously. But science, there's a lot -- there's differing opinions." The causes of global warming are no longer debatable, but when dealing with an uninformed electorate, Bush's fuzzy interpretation of all things factual is an easy sell.

"If you own the land, every day is Earth Day," Bush likes to say, more thinly veiled code for yielding to oil and chemical interests and private property owners. His campaign promises with regard to the environment are primarily limited to "landowner" incentive programs, "private" stewardship grants, and "landowner" tax incentives.

Speak for the trees

Gore was at his best when he gave up presidential politics (prematurely) and wrote his book Earth in the Balance, boldly answering the call to "make the rescue of our environment the central organizing principle for civilization."

Where Bush touts his distrust of government, Gore has celebrated the nation's opportunity to act as a steward of the land. He sees an environmental conscience as part of our national heritage, writing that "from the abolition of slavery to the granting of women's suffrage -- [the American drive to correct injustice] constantly renewed our moral authority to lead."

The link between our relationship with the environment and our relationship with each other is powerful for Gore. "We also abuse other members of the human family, especially those who cannot speak for themselves," he writes. "We tolerate the theft of land from indigenous peoples, the exploitation of areas inhabited by the poorest populations, and -- worst of all -- the violation of the rights of those who will come after us."

It's easy to hear the echoes of Nobel laureates from Toni Morrison to William Faulkner when Gore writes of a dysfunctional civilization reduced to the horrifying concept of "throwaway children," babies thrown into trash cans by parents overwhelmed by the prospect of raising the child. "Nothing could better illustrate my strong belief that the worst of all forms of pollution is wasted lives," Gore says. He evokes Pecola in Morrison's The Bluest Eye, of whom the narrator says, "this soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live."

He becomes Faulknerian in his discussions of the relationship with the natural world. Pondering the old tree falling in the forest question, Gore writes that "a civilization that believes itself to be separate from the world may pretend not to hear, but there is indeed a sound when a tree falls in the forest."

Musings on the relationship to the land, Gore recalls old Ike McCaslin's rumination on hunting stories in Go Down, Moses, stories "...of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document:--of white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any fragment of it, of Indian ruthless enough to pretend that any fragment of it had been his to convey."

Among the distinctions the Sierra Club has made in endorsing Gore are that he supports protecting 40 million acres of wild forests from traditional logging, that he supports wilderness protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and that he has proposed proactive legislation while Bush has maintained that "I don't think you can legislate clean air and clean water." Gore got 100% approval rating from the Sierra Club in their voter guide. Bush scored 8%.

If Mark Twain was right when he said there can be no good story that does not take on a significant question of moral substance, then it is no difficult leap for those of us who measure our own character in part by our relationship with the land we live on to acknowledge the necessity of enlisting a storyteller with a keen sense of moral responsibility to continue the tale of the American wilderness.

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