The Global Citizen: Leaving Nature Alone

At some point the busy human economy will have to stop expanding into wilderness, either because we decide to leave some bit of nature untouched, or because there will be no untouched nature left. For much of Europe the choice is long past. No place there is wild enough to teach us, as Wendell Berry says, what nature would be doing if people were doing nothing. In the United States we can still stop short of stamping our imprint on 100 percent of our land. How much should we leave alone? Ten percent? Two percent? Zero? If we choose ten percent, we're already too late, unless we pull back somewhere and let nature recover. If we pick zero, all we have to do is wait awhile, because that's where our economy and our super-active Congress are heading. Of the 2.3 billion acres in the nation, not more than 5-6 percent -- maybe 150 million acres -- can be considered wilderness. About 10 million of those acres are in the hands of private conservation groups. The National Park Service holds 73 million acres, roughly equal to the area we have paved nationwide. Adding wildlife refuges and such, a total of 104 million acres, more than half of them in Alaska, are under theoretical federal protection. That's four percent of our land -- two percent of the lower 48 states. The far right edge of our super-active Congress thinks four percent is too much. The Republicans have already budgeted $1.25 billion for oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- a magnificent sweep of mountains and coastal plain so full of wild creatures that it's called "America's Serengeti." It is five percent of the North Slope, the only part that has not been opened to development. Geologists say there is a 20 percent chance of finding enough oil there to supply the nation for six months. Getting it would require drilling pads, gravel pits, 100 miles of pipeline, 380 miles of roads, 11 production facilities, four airstrips, two ports, saltwater treatment facilities, housing, and, if nearby Prudhoe Bay is any indication, toxic waste dumps and plumes of air pollution. Six months of oil. End of wilderness. A bill before Congress (H.R. 2081) would give states, counties, and individuals the right to build roads through national parks or refuges. The Alaska government has in mind thirty roads through Denali National Park. Polls and comments from thousands of Utah citizens show overwhelming support for a 5.7 million acre redrock wilderness area in their state. Their representatives have brought to Congress a shrunken version of that request. It establishes a "wilderness" area of only 1.8 million acres, in which roads, dams, power lines, grazing, off-road vehicles, and removal of water for irrigation would be allowed. The bill eliminates the option of keeping any of the remaining federal lands in Utah as wilderness. House Republicans have set the budget of the new Mojave National Park in California (1.5 million acres from high mountains to salt desert) at a sneering $1 per year. That's one way Congress can effectively unprotect federal lands -- by strangling their budget. The national park budget has long been inadequate for the difficult job of preserving wilderness while helping people enjoy it. Almost 300 million people visit the parks each year. Yosemite has 4600 parking places. But the Park Service budget ($1.3 billion, about $10 per taxpayer) is too low to maintain the physical plant and pay a sufficient staff. Meanwhile the government provides great deals to concessionaires in the parks, who earn $257 million a year while paying only $7 million for the most scenic business locations in the nation. The parks are also threatened from outside their boundaries. The water demands of Florida farms and cities drain the Everglades. Clearcuts march up to the border of Olympic National Park. Air pollution fouls the Grand Canyon. A proposed gold mine is likely to leach cyanide into the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. Rather than strengthen park protection, Representative Jim Hansen (R-Utah) thinks we should sell parks. His bill to do so was voted down 321-180 in the House, but within hours he attached it as a rider to the budget reconciliation package. Asked why he resuscitated park-closing after such a resounding defeat, a Hansen staffer sniffed, "I don't think the vote truly represents the feeling of the entire House." It certainly represents the feeling of the people. In recent nationwide polls 77 percent consider it "very important" to preserve our national parks, and another 20 percent say it's "somewhat important." (That adds up to 97 percent!) Seventy percent of those polled say drilling should not be permitted in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even if it brings in money to reduce the deficit. What would the poll results be if we were asked what percent of the nation's land should be left as wilderness? Whatever the number, I can't believe it would be zero.

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