We live in an age when a considerable duplication of services could be eliminated by merging the Congressional Record with the National Sex Offender Registry. So squalid behavior in Washington is no longer a surprise, with the hands of the politicians groping their way into all sorts of unwanted places, from middle-class wallets to the web to western public lands.
Now that I have lived through half of one, a century doesn’t seem like that long of a timeframe, so forgive me when I say it’s “only” been a hundred years or so that the last great conservative occupied the White House. Also, forgive me for being tone-deaf to political nuance, but to my mind if you want to call yourself a conservative, you actually have to want to conserve something.
Today’s self-styled conservatives are the opposite. They reward themselves for accomplishments they have yet to accomplish. They live lavishly today at the expense of tomorrow. They stampede through our natural resources as if they have the world’s last great chance to use them all up.
They consume everything the way a Family Restaurant consumes bacon fat. So in a century we’ve gone from a Republican president dedicated to conserving our natural resources to one that would destroy them all if he thought there were another drop or two of oil within their confines to extract.
With this administration, one hesitates to assign this penchant to any preconceived, carefully crafted philosophy. The behavior is more analogous to a little boy who pulls wings off a fly, cruelly relishing both the pain and the horrified reaction of his classmates. What other explanation could there be for incentivising the destruction of elephants — a position he quickly abandoned, probably at the insistence of a more grown-up family member.
Some of these western lands that are being stripped of protection I have seen, some I have not. There are areas that are wondrous and areas that are desolate, where an oil derrick would hardly offend sensibilities, if it were noticed at all. Same with the Arctic, which is about to be opened up under the pending tax plan (when, for that favorite oligarch on your list, one present just isn’t enough).
But, for a real conservative, the question remains, Why? Energy is cheap and plentiful at the moment, so why cash-in unspoiled lands that have survived since time immemorial for something we don’t even need? Instead, we’re like the zombie commercial where the survivors standing around a fridge full of Bud Light worry that “we’re almost out.”
Sitting within the relative protection of the Blue Line, two points become apparent. One, vigilance is always necessary. Just a heartbeat ago, it seemed the threat to our national land treasures had passed. New gas-extraction technologies, which admittedly have their own problems, was at least providing the bridge to a new era of renewables. But just when we thought all the fossil fuel battled had been fought and won, here’s the nation getting all excited about coal again, which makes as much sense a newsroom getting excited about typewriters.
Last December, President Obama extended protections to Bears Ears National Monument, writing that “Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes.” That protection, designed to last for generations, instead lasted 340 days.
Needless to say, it doesn’t pay to get comfortable. If there is money to be made, be it from rail cars, development or natural resources, there will always be a threat. Just because it’s dormant, doesn’t mean it can’t return. Groups that safeguard the park deserve our appreciation and support.
The second point involves this thing called overuse. Mark Twain said, “The problem isn’t that there are too many idiots, it’s that lightning isn’t distributed right.” The problem is not overuse, the problem might be over-centralized use. That’s why it’s important to encourage use throughout the park and not to discourage use overall.
Because you never know where our next president is going to come from. It is easy, I suppose, to sit in a Washington office or a New York City board room and agree to make mincemeat out of lands upon which you have never once laid eyes.
But after having seen and experienced natural wonders, it’s different. Look down your nose if you want, but do not underestimate the power of the selfie. These connections between young people and the land, haphazard as they might initially be, have staying power. Nature, once it has grasped your soul, does not let go.
In an increasingly electronic world, our treasured lands need all the friends, all the constituents, they can get. It is worth considering that if Bears Ears had had the problem of overuse, it might not be facing a much bigger problem today.
Map of Bears Ears National Monument, with an overlay added to indicate the boundaries reduced in December 2017 (courtesy Bureau of Land Management).