Now, more than ever, public lands must be protected

Eagle Lake in the Sierra Nevada's Desolation Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. (Photo: William Cushman, via Shutterstock)

For many Americans, we are forced to decide which items we have the money for by measuring what we value most. Those choices become clearer when the chips are down.

While it is no surprise where the Trump administration’s priorities lie when it comes to our public lands during this shutdown, the brazenness of their disregard for our protected public lands in favor of special interests should make it crystal clear what matters to them most.

The national outdoor recreation economy is an $887 billion powerhouse and supports 691,000 jobs right here in California.

Public lands, by definition, are for and should be accessible to everyone. All users of public lands —hikers, swimmers, picnickers, hunters, anglers, and countless others — should be appalled by the Trump administration’s management of our national parks and other protected public lands during this government shutdown.

By deeming “essential staff” to be those who are processing oil lease applications from oil and gas companies while furloughing the managers of our iconic national parks, the Trump administration is clearly stating that they believe the only value of our public lands is what can be extracted from them.

Never mind that the national outdoor recreation economy is an $887 billion powerhouse, or that it supports 691,000 jobs right here in California. The Trump administration has moved forward efforts to drill the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and processed new drilling permit applications in Alaska, North Dakota, New Mexico and Oklahoma. This will all but ensure oil drilling activities are not interrupted.

The impacts of their decision can be seen in story after story remarking on the trash build up, trees cut, piles of human excrement, and public safety hazards endured in our national parks and other protected public lands.

The decision of new Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to leave the gates to our public lands open and not fund the hardworking staff that steward our public lands has led to multiple crises.

Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, embodies conflict of interest, and is already defining his legacy at the Interior Department by favoring the oil and gas industry over families who enjoy and rely on outdoor access and recreation.  

Much of the coverage has focused on national parks, most infamously Joshua Tree. But since 41 percent of California is national public land (43 million acres), you can bet these disastrous impacts are happening all over the state. The short-term ecological impacts will be devastating, and many of them irreversible.

The illegal harvesting of old growth timber along the Pacific coast is one that we won’t get back — the iconic redwoods of northwest California are a majestic window into the past with many over a thousand years old. And, the unauthorized use of off-road vehicles in desert areas will leave tracks and disrupt soils that take thousands of years to develop.

Despite all of this damage, my hope is that this experience will demonstrate how much people really care about these places. It is heartening to see the hundreds, maybe thousands, of volunteers that have stepped up, organized, and tackled some of the worst outcomes of unfettered access to our parks. They demonstrate the lengths public lands lovers are willing to go to protect the places they love.

Unfortunately, their good will and hard work is not infinite.

When the government is reopened I desperately hope that the damage inflicted will be rectified to the greatest degree possible, and that other conservation protections and funding are encouraged by constituents and approved by lawmakers. They can start by approving the public lands package held up in the last Congressional session, which included re-authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a bipartisan conservation tool that has protected outdoor access for over 50 years.

Please take with you the experience of the past month and raise your voice for the better stewardship of our public lands in the future.

Ed’s Note: 
Chris Morrill is executive director of the California Wilderness Coalition (CalWild).

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