It is April 16, 2010. We have convened in the auditorium at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., to participate in the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors. Ken Salazar, secretary of the interior, welcomes the 500 participants.
“One hundred and two years ago, Teddy Roosevelt held the first conference on conservation in 1908,” Salazar says. “One hundred and two years later, we are hosting the first conference on conservation in the twenty-first century. . . . Fifty million people are represented here today: hunters, ranchers, farmers, anglers, local, state, and tribal governments, cultural preservationists, the National Rifle Association, Ducks Unlimited, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club. . . . We have called you all here to find a unity agenda for conservation.”
Secretary Salazar, a gentle and genuine presence in an oftentimes contentious arena, shares his story of watching the sun rise over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado, where he and his Latino family have ranched for generations.
“Farmers and ranchers are the greatest stewards the land has,” he says. “I want you to know I understand this. . . . We are here to start a collective conversation about how to address these conservation challenges. To connect wildlife corridors. To work with habitat fragmentation. We need to identify the significant landscapes in America, to identify great urban parks, to protect and enhance waterways in America, to support farmers and ranchers, to preserve their lands.”
I listen. I have been skeptical of Ken Salazar, finding him too moderate for my tastes as a hard-core public lands advocate working on behalf of Utah wilderness for the past thirty years. But I am open, and I understand the secretary of the interior’s desire for a unified conversation on private, public, and working landscapes. We all want a more humane dialogue.
We also hear from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Administrator Lisa Jackson from the Environmental Protection Agency, and Nancy Sutley from the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
We are given a wash of rhetoric, as bland as possible, rarely if ever hearing the word “wildness” or “biodiversity” or “climate change.” What we do hear is that 80 percent of Americans live in urban landscapes, that “the iconic weekend camping trips give us an opportunity to reconnect with our family in outdoor places and open spaces.” Vilsack says, “Nature is God’s art.” He tells us, “Our farm fields and forests are the source of our food and our water, fuel, energy, and wood . . . a place of intrinsic values such as relaxation and recreation.”
I begin to feel my blood pressure rise and I wonder how long we will have to endure this government infomercial and listen to language destined to bore third graders, let alone an audience that understands the hard edges of conservation work within their own communities.
Administrator Jackson stands and says, “America’s Great Outdoors have shaped our history and driven our progress from artists to pioneers.” She talks about the importance of “signature laws” from the Clean Water Act to the Clean Air Act. And just when I think finally we are going to be given some substantive ideas, she says, “The Great Outdoors bring people together.”
I want to leap to my feet and shout to this Administration, “What are you afraid of? Speak to us as if we have a brain. Give us something real to think about and discuss. Help us find our way to the true conversations about conservation so we can sit in the center of our disagreements and arrive at alternative solutions born out of deep listening.”
But like everybody else in the room, I just sit there, polite, bored to death, waiting for robust language, wondering why I traveled halfway across the country to listen to bloodless language that must have polled well between the extremes of tea partiers and those activists still spiking trees.
Just then, we were asked to watch a video on “The Great Outdoors” that speaks of “a shared heritage” and tells us in a booming male voice, “Innovation and collaboration will be required with innovative partnerships.” I hear my own voice whispering “blah, blah, blah,” in my neighbor Bill Hedden’s ear. Bill, who like me, lives in Castle Valley, Utah, is the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust, responsible for one of the largest ranches in the Colorado Plateau, the 850,000-acre Kane Ranch on the border of the Grand Canyon. He smiles, shakes his head, and says nothing as the trumpets crescendo and we are told again, “The Great Outdoors is for everyone.”
I am not by nature a cynical person, but on this day, it is hard not to think back to the Bush-Cheney Administration, which had no hesitation about laying out its oil and gas agenda in bold terms. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton spoke unabashedly about America’s need for energy independence and argued unapologetically that the natural resources held within public lands must be extracted by whatever means possible, from Wyoming to the Dakotas to Colorado and Utah to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Norton’s public mantra may not have been “Drill, Baby, Drill,” but every employee who worked for the Bureau of Land Management knew that the Bush-Cheney priority for public lands was to accommodate, support, and supply private access on public lands to coal companies, oil and gas companies, and those extracting coal bed methane gas from family farms and ranches in the interior West, regardless of how it used and fouled precious groundwater. One only had to visit the once wild country at the base of the Wind River Mountains in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, to witness the oil drilling that utilized the chemical fracking process that later left close to 100 wells contaminated with benzene.
Their language was neither lame nor limp, but confident and aggressive in their right to exploit, extract, and export our natural resources for the common good in the face of terror. Wildlands took a hit while oil companies got richer. Both Bush and Cheney spoke with the zealotry of patriots dressed in their own black suits tailor-made from the oil that brought them into power.
The video on the Great Outdoors ends. President Obama emerges on stage. The atmosphere is electric. We stand. We clap. I am taking pictures of our President with my Blackberry held high above my head. He raises his hands for us to stop. We obey and sit down
President Obama speaks of a commitment to America’s Treasured Landscapes. Unlike Teddy Roosevelt, who was a legendary conservationist and hunter, he says, “I will probably never shoot a bear, that’s a fair bet, but I do intend to enhance this legacy, a legacy passed down one generation to the next.”
“I signed a Public Lands Act, whereby two million acres of wilderness and 1,000 miles of scenic rivers and three national parks were protected.”
He pauses again.
“But we must also adapt our strategies to meet the challenges of our time: climate change and pollution.”
The President comments on how there are 1,600 land trusts in America that have protected ten million acres of private lands and working landscapes. How the Farm Service Agency has protected another thirty million acres of lands. “This collaborative spirit is at the heart of the Great Outdoors Initiative,” he says.
Then he rolls out Salazar’s Great Outdoors Listening Tour, which, the President tells us, will “collect the best ideas that come out of our communities.”
He outlines his Administration’s main points of focus that would build on what has already been done:
1) We are committed to reconnecting Americans to rivers and waterways and other outdoor landscapes.
2) We will help build upon successful local conservation approaches and determine how the federal government can best support them. We will listen to local, state, and tribal governments. We will work with farmers and ranchers who care about taking care of their lands as stewards.
3) We will use science-based management to restore and protect lands and waters.
4) We are committed to fostering a new generation of parks in urban landscapes.
5) We believe this Great Outdoors Initative will spur economic growth, creating green jobs as was done in the Depression through the CCC, be it in forest restoration or recreation.
“Even in times of crisis,” the President says, “we are compelled to take the long view on behalf of our natural heritage.”
He signs a memorandum on the Great Outdoors Initiative, shakes hands with the government officials present, gives Salazar a hug, and then exits the stage.
For the next two hours, we listen to two panels, one on working landscapes, moderated by Vilsack, and the other panel on public lands, moderated by Salazar. All participants are thoughtful and polite. Some are even visionary, such as Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, who speaks of “the powerful disconnect” between his constituents and the environment, the challenge of showing ways a connection to the land will significantly change and enhance their lives.
When Jaime Pinkham, a member of the Nez Perce tribe and vice president of the Archibald Bush Foundation, mentions the fourteen million hunters in America, Mayor Booker says, “Hmmm, maybe if I can introduce wildlife into my city parks in Newark, perhaps I can get people to shoot the animals instead of each other.”
It feels good to laugh, a release from all the good behavior.
And then, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico stands up and acts like a coyote that has been caged and then suddenly released. He speaks passionately about the hard issues, the issues no one has dared to touch. It is a brave and, at times, shocking speech.
“We need to expand our wilderness systems and national parks and monuments,” he says. “We need to protect wildlife by expanding wildlife corridors and connect to the larger lands to avoid habitat fragmentation.”
He asks for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. And he takes on the advocates of growth.
“We must stop the building of new roads and unbridled development,” he says. “We have to develop strategies of resilience to protect the wildest lands from degradation.”
Above all, he stresses the urgency of the moment. “This is not a decade-long project,” he says. “It has to happen now. . . . I propose an Omnibus Wilderness Bill that moves ahead on the expanded national parks and monuments plan.”
Finally, someone dares to speak the truth.
Salazar stands up in the midst of roaring applause and says, “Well, Governor, I agree with most everything you said, but then, you’ve never been shy to say what’s on your mind.”
A well-known powerbroker within the environmental movement, sitting behind me, leans forward and says, “Well, there’s some red meat for you faithful.” I answer: “It’s not about red meat for the faithful, it’s about speaking in specific terms with a call for bold action with a long-term vision.”
Call me cranky, but as a Westerner, these issues are not abstractions; they are at the very heart of our lives as we watch pronghorn antelope unable to migrate from Pinedale, Wyoming, to Jackson Hole because their ancestral routes, open for 6,000 years, are now blocked by oil and gas extraction and development. Wilderness is not an idea but a place, and we know these places by name. Meanwhile, off-road vehicles are ripping into fragile desert terrain that then creates red dirt tornados as erosion deepens in the face of drought and climate change.
Just look down on the mountain peaks when flying from Denver to Grand Junction and notice the dirt blown in on glaciers that accelerates snowmelt. Water in the West is scarce, but that doesn’t concern the oil and gas companies as they continue to use millions of gallons of water in the fracking processes flushed with chemicals that eventually find their way into local wells at the expense of residents’ health.
At lunch, I thank Secretary Salazar for withdrawing seventy-seven leases from the oil and gas sales set in place by the Bush-Cheney Administration in October 2008. Most of these leases were parcels of land adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, with other parcels located near Desolation Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument, and wilderness study areas inside Nine Mile Canyon, where miles of galleries of ancient rock art appear on canyon walls. By withdrawing the leases, Salazar made a crucial gesture to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of wild lands with wilderness character against development.
Salazar seems serious in his desire and commitment to creating a diverse constituency for “the treasured landscapes” of America. He seems to want to leave a legacy of protected wildlands because he carries a love and longing for what they bring to the human spirit. He seems to have a good and generous heart. He seems to hold a deep regard for the land that is rooted in his own agrarian background.
But is he strong enough to fight for the big changes Richardson outlined, especially as this White House advises him to slow down on his conservation agenda? This Administration doesn’t want any more controversy from the radical right. The conservation of public lands is not a priority with President Obama, who is facing two wars and a sick economy with millions of Americans out of work. His environmental focus is on passing an energy bill.
And here is the irony for the White House. Without the protection of America’s public lands, especially the last large remaining ecosystems in the Colorado Plateau and Rocky Mountains, we won’t have the carbon sinks needed to offset climate change. Water storage alone in our alpine watersheds needs protection, as do animals like beavers, which, through their dam building, slow the water down, cool it, and allow it to seep into and saturate the soils below. If we can’t come up with the collaborative spirit and hard thinking to figure out the best uses of our public lands, we won’t be able to move toward a sustainable green future.
On Monday, April 26, ten days after the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors, Salazar, sans his white cowboy hat, came to Utah, making Salt Lake City his first stop on his national listening tour. The first question to be asked is: Who is he listening to? He met with Governor Gary Herbert and his Balanced Resource Council at the state capitol. This council is anything but balanced, with no environmentalist sitting at the table. The secretary announced that he is listening to Utahns’ complaints and “eager to work out compromises on roads, national monuments, endangered species,” and other contentious issues.
Secondly, Salazar stated to Governor Herbert that President Obama would not use his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish any national monuments without local permission (which means there will not be any). Two wild areas void of protection in Utah are under consideration: the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa. This means that basically Salazar gave Utah’s governor veto power over the President of the United States’ discretion to create new national monuments, discretion that almost every President has used since passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906. Nobody looking back through the lens of history has ever said making a national monument was a bad idea, including those who organized a cattle run through Grand Teton National Monument to protest its expansion into a national park. Former governor Cliff Hansen of Wyoming, who led the brigade, admitted years later that he had been wrong.
Governor Herbert just signed legislation declaring that Utah can take con trol of federal lands under eminent domain now, even though the lands are the domain of the Department of the Interior. This is craziness. These are public lands, America’s commons, now given over to the right fringe, the loud-mouth tea partiers who have managed to intimidate a man who wears a white cowboy hat with an ear open toward unity.
And that’s not all. The Obama Administration under the leadership of Ken Salazar has defended and implemented the atrocious Bush land management plans affecting eleven million acres that opened vast portions of southern Utah to off-road vehicles and energy development. Obama and Salazar have refused to accept their legal authority to establish and protect new wilderness study areas, authority that had been recognized and utilized by Republican and Democratic Administrations until George Bush and Dick Cheney’s regime.
Salazar has also refused to overturn the “No Wild Settlement” policy set in motion by former Utah governor Michael O. Leavitt and Gale Norton in 2003, behind closed doors. By accepting this policy, Salazar now supports undercutting the authority of the Department of the Interior’s ability to reassess and reinventory those wildlands with wilderness character to be placed under interim protection until a wilderness designation can be made.
Salazar had the opportunity to change this policy. Instead, he has chosen to let this anti-wilderness policy stand.
Lastly, on day one of his national listening tour to create The Great Outdoors Initiative, Salazar disavowed America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act that would protect more than nine million acres of Utah’s wildlands. This Act before Congress now has more than 100 sponsors in both the House and the Senate led by Representative Maurice Hinchey and Senator Richard Durbin. Salazar said, “I do not plan on making any wilderness or monument without local support. . . . America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act is the wrong way to go. . . . I prefer the county by county approach.”
In a few short hours in Salt Lake City, Salazar blew new life into the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s. Why now would county commissioners in the reddest state in the Union even think about coming to the table to talk to conservationists about a collaborative approach to wilderness? The power has just been handed over to them. With local control, there will be no wilderness bills or monument designations. Salazar may have forgotten that while local support is important, these are not just Utah lands, these are America’s lands.
One of the environmental activists at the gathering with Salazar said, “I was spoken at, not spoken to. So much for a listening tour.”
This saddens me. I want to support Secretary Salazar. I want to believe in his intentions to create a broad-based constituency for America’s Treasured Landscapes. But listening to only the radical right and compromising the core values inherent in public lands is a sign not of strength but of weakness when it comes to visionary leadership. It is a short-term hand-off to a vocal few at the expense of both the land and its rightful stewards, all American citizens for whom wilderness is a deeply held value, as we heard at the first conservation gathering at the White House in the twenty-first century.
I want to stand with Salazar. But as of this moment, I cannot. How sad that what the conservation community in this country managed to fight off—bad public lands policies initiated within George W. Bush’s Administration—Salazar gave away all by himself. If this is the kind of public lands policy that is being established by our own “progressive” Administration, friendly to environmental concerns, we are in trouble.
If I were a grizzly bear or coyote or a Utah prairie dog, I would take cover. The only unity I see in Salazar’s vision of community is retreat from protection of our public lands.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.