I authored this piece on Lake Powell. pessimism, optimism and the age of climate change…
Last week, the most worthless and unpopular Congress in the history of the United States of America passed the National Defense Authorization Act. The troubled House of Representatives approved the “must pass” bill on December, 4th. The Senate passed it on December 12th. Either this week or right after Christmas, President Obama will sign the bill into law.
The National Defense Authorization Act was an unbelievable mess of military pork and corporate giveaways sprinkled with some chocolate bits on top.
The National Defense Authorization Act is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the broken American political system. For the past six years, the American Congress has done essentially nothing. They’ve proven themselves the most incompetent and even insane Congress in our history. The Republican Party wanted to prove that government inept and with the help of weak-knee Democrats they have achieved just that. So instead of considering a great number of important bills one-on-one, looking at the particular the merits of the proposed new law, they did nothing until the last minute and then crammed all sorts of new laws (many which would never pass if considered on their own merits and many of which were placed in the bill under our system of legalized bribery) into into a defense bill that few can vote against and pushed it through at the very end of the year. It is shameful and despicable.
Included in the bill was the largest set of public lands protection measures the country has seen since 2009 (the chocolate bits). Hundreds of thousands of new wilderness acreage was protected throughout the western United States. Many more hundreds of thousands of acres were protected from mineral development. Several new national parks were declared, others were expanded and miles and miles of important waterways gained protection. Fantastic, right? Yes.
And included in all of these public lands protections is the 45,000-acre Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Area here in Taos, New Mexico (all photos in this post are of or from the Columbine-Hondo). For long-time readers of this website you know that I have long advocated for the designation of the Columbine-Hondo. So in this gigantic mess of a new law I got my pony.
So why is it that I’m struggling with this victory? I support it. I got my pony. But I’m not happy about it. And I have my moments where I’m not even sure it was a victory.
What We Got
The list of victories are extensive. I will touch only on some of the highlights. We got the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Area in New Mexico. Also in New Mexico the Valles Caldera was designated as a national park, a long over-due change in management. We also got the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. In Colorado we got the Hermosa Creek Wilderness and Hermosa Creek Special Management Area together comprising more than 100,000 acres. In Nevada we got the Wovoka Wilderness, the Pine Forest Range Wilderness and the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument. Washington state sees the creation of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and in Montana we see a significant victory both for preservation and against the oil and gas industry with the designation of the 208,000-acre Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area and another 67,000 acres of wilderness in the same region. Montana also sees another massive chunk of land withdrawn from mineral development. These Montana fights have been ongoing for two decades and it is a huge win.
Nation-wide, seven new national parks were created in all. Nine more were expanded. Five states saw the declaration of new Wild and Scenic River areas protecting 140 miles of river and 17,000 acres of important riparian lands.
And this is just a sampling. It is no small achievement for conservation in the United States.
What We Lost
The losses are just as significant.
Fossil fuel companies were able to get easier permitting processes for fracking into the bill under our legalized system of bribery. They also got incentives for more fracking and incentives to burn more fossil fuels (In another bill the Environmental Protection Agency funding was cut, protections for endangered species were removed and clean water provisions were weakened).
Over 100,000 acres of wildlands throughout the nation were lost in the new law to oil and gas development. Certain old growth forest in Alaska are now open to logging. Formerly protected lands in eastern Montana are now open to coal strip mining. In Nevada, 12,000 acres of public lands were given to the US Navy for weapons training.
Perhaps the biggest loss emotionally was the giveaway of nearly 2,500 acres of public lands in Arizona to an Australian mining company that is going to rip it open for copper. Not only is this land vital to some public water supplies and chock full of archaeological sites but it is also land belonging to the Apache people. If anyone thinks the war against the indigenous people in North America is a thing of the history books, you are wrong.
And this too is just a sampling. Mind you I’m touching on just the conservation issues not the Wall Street and military giveaways inserted into the bill among other awful things. Get a larger overview from this LA Times article.
Here in New Mexico this bill allows for an easing of the permitting process for oil and gas drilling on public lands and this is going to have a very negative impact on my beloved Chaco Canyon. The bill likewise reduces both public and federal oversight of grazing on public lands which will in turn have a negative impact on soils, vegetation, biodiversity and the health of our creeks, streams and rivers.
For and Against
A lot of my friends who have long been in the trenches on these rough environmental battles such as Western Environmental Law Center and WildEarth Guardians are not terribly happy about these trade offs. And while I’m still supporting the bill, I honestly I don’t blame them.
(by the way, both of these organizations have done and continue to do the long term, hard work for environmental protection and I urge you to visit their websites here and here and support them financially)
For them the trade-off was too much. While all strong supporters of Wilderness and public lands protection there is a feeling that many of these areas (like Columbine-Hondo) were not in immediate danger of development and so didn’t need to be part of the horse trade in the first place. Second, there is the excellent point that in exchange for many of these victories, we have traded our allies (such as the San Carlos Apache and responsible grazing advocates) down the river. Yet another concern is that this is “conservation by concession”, giving up where we don’t need to give up, showing our weakness as a movement and watering down future land protection bills by compromising too easily now, that this will ‘lower the bar’ for future efforts.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly in my mind is that this kind of “pragmatism” leaves dirty underwear for future generations to wash. You can be sure that the logging in Alaska, the drilling at Chaco Canyon, the copper mining in Arizona and the coal mining in Montana will leave a legacy of poisoned air, water and people and it will be the taxpayers, not the corporations who made a fortune in these places, who will be left with the bill.
Garrett VeneKlausen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation said in last week’s Taos News article. “Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the beast: forsaking the perfect for the good.”
The main reason that I’m supporting this lands bill and these painful tradeoffs is because as I see it, it was this or nothing. That is not a very powerful endorsement I realize and it is also a stand taken out of fear. In January the Republican Party takes over Congress. Never in our history has there been a more corrupt and ideologically driven political party as we see with the modern GOP. And so we can expect a very challenging two years at least. And “challenging” to SAY the least.
I also feel that comprising to a certain extent is the name of the game. While we should never stop pushing or all that we want we need to also realize that we will never get all that we want and so we need to judge where and for what we will have to compromise. No, we don’t want to get into a position of forsaking the good in hopes of the perfect. But it is a fine line to walk.
Ultimately, this is what happens when Americans don’t vote. Less than 35% of the eligible voters cast a ballot in the November election. The Republicans didn’t so much win the election as they stumbled into power on the failure of Americans voters to participate in our election process.
Regardless, they are in and many of the awful things we saw in this defense bill will be passed by the Republicans next year anyway. And no. I do not trust the Democrats nor President Obama to stand up against the Republicans and fight for us to keep the bad stuff at bay.
So for me, my support isn’t coming so much from principles as it is a sense that I’m forced to support something I wouldn’t otherwise because I see our system as so hopelessly broken.
And perhaps because I got my pony.
In the end, I’m going to support this and I extend a warm thank you to Senators Heinrich and Udall for getting us these victories. Both have been strong advocates for public lands protection in New Mexico and around the country. Columbine-Hondo and Valles Caldera are important lands worthy of Wilderness and National Park status.
This horse trading is not only the result of the disfunction in Washington DC but also the weakness of the conservation movement and inability to link conservation with other progressive issues. Environmentalism needs to step up and take on social and economic justice issues as well as land and water issues if it is to succeed. It is not just about public lands and wilderness. It is about taking on the plutocracy and creating a broad base of support and a strong political case for conservation.
And about turning people out to vote for environmental reasons.
Further, we rely far too much on the Democratic Party to advance our agenda in place of a broad social movement that pushes both parties to do the right thing. While certain members and factions of the Democratic Party are very conservation-minded, as a whole the party is almost as beholden to corporate interests as the Republicans and roundly fearful of taking strong stands on vital issues be they conservation, pollution or economic justice. The Democratic Party needs to do its own house-cleaning.
The conservation movement sas put itself in a weak position and then finds itself further weakened by being forced into tough compromises. Sometimes it is better to walk away from the negotiations. Sometimes not. Am I aware that I am at once railing against weakness and while at the same time perhaps endorsing it? Yes. This is ugly. And those of us who believe in conservation, clean air, clean water and wild landscapes…well, we have a lot of soul-searching to do.
In the meantime, let us celebrate the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Area and all the other newly protected lands across the country.
But let us not forget what we lost for it.