We are told that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s a line used so often it’s easy to dismiss. But with a Republican controlled congress and a Republican administration in the White House, we are beginning to see what virtually unchecked power can produce. Many important issues are under attack, one of them being our public lands and how we manage them.
Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has introduced two bills aimed public lands and he is not the only one. He belongs to a large cadre of Republicans not only in Utah but across the West leading a concerted effort to dismantle open access and management of iconic American landscapes and open spaces.
House Bill 621 would direct the Secretary of the Interior to sell 3.3 million acres of land that “serves no purpose for taxpayers.” That of course begs the question: Whose purpose do they serve? (See post script)
H.R. 622, the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act, first introduced last year, removes the law enforcement function from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service. According to Chaffetz’s website, the bill calls for deputizing local law enforcement, combined with block grant funding, to empower existing duly elected law enforcement offices to carry out these responsibilities. Posse comitatus come to mind?
In Nevada, Representative Mark Amodei introduced H.R. 243, The Nevada Land Sovereignty Act (it is also in the Senate) to prohibit the further extension or establishment of national monuments in the State of Nevada except by express authorization of Congress.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced Senate Bill 33, the Improved National Designation Process Act. This bill provide for congressional approval of national monuments and restrictions on the use of national monuments, to establish requirements for the declaration of marine national monuments, and for other purposes.
Similar bills from across the West are being sponsored in Congress by those irked by the constraints of federal law and public lands. Like many before them, these opportunistic representatives see this moment as their time to do away, once and for all, with lands set aside for the enjoyment and use of all Americans. In Utah alone they want to undo Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument, and they want to do away with the Antiquities Act.
While giving away three million acres might not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and trying to help local communities is important, it is also important to understand that public lands and the conservation and management of them carry forward the long American tradition of striving for the social democratic ideals of equality and commonwealth. Retaining the last remnants of our great heritage of land benefits us all.
The sad truth about local groups or users is that they often look only at their own needs. All people do this. It takes discipline to commit in a very real way to ideals and principles, especially when they do not produce immediate benefits. Having a perspective based solely on limited local experiences ignores the rest of the country and the Nation as a whole. Everyone struggles economically; everyone wants the benefits of the government while maintaining autonomy without constraints. But there are limits to freedom and there is no guarantee in life that you will always have a thriving economy or that your way of life will never change.
As Garrison Keiller recently said in a Washington Post op-ed, “Jobs are lost to automation, innovation, obsolescence, the moving finger of fate. The carriage industry was devastated by the automobile, and the men who made surreys and broughams and hansoms had to learn something new; the Pullman porter union was hit hard by the advent of air travel and the porters sent their sons to college; the newspaper business was hit hard by Craigslist. Too bad for us. Who doesn’t get this? The idea that the government is obligated to create a good living for you is one the Republican Party has fought since Adam was in the third grade. It’s the party of personal responsibility. But there they are, promising to make the bluebirds sing. As if.”
One of the last great bastions of equality is public space, open and accessible by all. That those lands are not owned and controlled by the few is a testament to the tenacity and forethought of people who saw not only the potential benefits of preserving them, but the potential loss of not preserving them. Martin Luther King said, “Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
Changing the system is not voting for politicians who tell you what you want to hear so that you can win in Congress at the expense of others. That is the system, and to continue on that path will be to witness the tides turn and see another group gain at your expense. Changing the system is working with people you might not otherwise work with to find solutions that benefits everyone to some compromised level. Survival happens through compromise not through hard lines and competition. Compromise is how you don’t lose it all.
Furthermore, to suggest or believe that one group deserves special protection by a majority in Congress, not for ideals of equality or justice but to maintain a status quo, is privilege. That privilege has run its course. Not because monuments have been designated or there are restrictions on industry, but because that is how life and the economy and progress work. Nothing is static. That is not to say that rural communities do not matter or deserve the Nation’s care like all other groups, it just means that old ways give way to new.
The right way to move forward is not to go backward to the “good old days” but to accept the march of time and adapt and move with it by being creative and open-minded, by working with others to find solutions that maintain traditions but also embrace progress, and by caring for others by putting yourself in their shoes and allowing them to step into yours. Different user groups who come to the table and work together have the ability to not only address local needs, but to address local needs while ensuring that National traditions and principles form the foundation of the work.
A perspective on public lands that takes into account the entire nation, our whole country, is what’s required. The long view that includes all people, the entire economy; that seeks to balance the costs and rewards among user groups equally – to say nothing of the redemptive act of restoring a respectful relationship with Native Americans – as well as the scientific benefits, the historic preservation of artifacts, and the health of ecosystems, watersheds, and biodiversity, is the hard work many ignore and some members of Congress are shirking for short term benefits at the expense of our posterity.
Our public lands embody American ideals and principles of stewardship and responsibility, the history of a young Nation’s wild and audacious drive to expand westward, of the awakening that preservation for the benefit of current and future generations is the moral thing to do, that equal and open access for all regardless of economic class is an American birthright, and yes, the economic growth that built this nation into what it is and provides benefits and quality of life we all enjoy. But they also embody this Nation’s dedication to the ideal, the ethic, that some things have value far beyond monetary worth and that they are worth preserving and protecting as they are.
Though rural people may not feel privileged, they are fortunate in ways others are not. They have open land and the freedom to roam unhindered right outside their door, they have clean air to breath and clear vistas to see, and they wake to beauty every morning. They are not encumbered with overcrowding, traffic, or pollution.
Struggling financially is never fun, but it’s easier to handle when you can escape into paradise and forget your worries for a while – to enjoy a picnic with your children in the shade of a ponderosa pine because it’s all you can afford and be queen for an afternoon knowing it’s not the lack of money, but this that your children will remember. Open spaces soothe the soul and enable one to clear their head and face the realities of life rejuvenated and refreshed. Not everyone has this at their fingertips. It is wealth that no amount of money can compensate for and yet it’s so easy to forget when the worries of life overwhelm.
The people who live near such places know this. Many claim that the best protection is no protection; don’t put it on the map in other words. There is some truth to this idea. We have all witnessed a special, secret spot get shared on social media and then watch its exposure change it into a popular destination, to our chagrin. But we don’t own these places, no matter how much we love them; they belong to everyone, young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural, and from all backgrounds, genders, cultures, religious or political viewpoints, and walks of life. And without proper protections and management they are vulnerable in un-imagined ways.
Tourists and outfitters will come with or without designations and protections, and so will the oil and mining companies – but with the help of short-sighted and opportunistic politicians, the influx will not be managed well, if at all, and the aim will be profit. Those who stand in the way of that, who aren’t profitable, will be expendable.
Political expediency is the act of using forethought only when it coincides with one’s own wishes, where the most blatantly obvious facts can be dismissed or ignored because they are simply unwelcome. It is this above all else that we should be most wary of.
U.S. Congressman John F. Lacey said in 1901, “The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.” This was the prelude to the Antiquities Act that the Iowa congressman sponsored and put before Congress and ultimately saw enacted into law in 1906. Lacey was a Civil War veteran who had seen first-hand the destruction perpetrated by man against man, but he also lived at the heyday of man against nature, when wildlife such as bison and the passenger pigeon were being hunted to extinction and the West was not only open to expansion but to wanton greed for resources such as timber and minerals, and for ancient artifacts of American antiquity.
While these places and artifacts belonged to native tribes and peoples, they had no voice in the discussion taking place between the European-American factions discussing their fate. The landscapes that held their stories, sacred sites, histories, and surviving culture would be determined by greedy businessmen, hungry ranchers, worried anthropologists, determined educators, and warring politicians. What was happening across the Southwest, whether intentionally or not, was the white-washing or cultural cleansing of pre-settlement history as sites and artifacts were looted and sold to the highest bidder.
Regimes throughout history have sought to wipe out the memory, beliefs, and histories of opposing cultures and ethnicities through book burnings or destruction of cultural and historical sites thereby making the destruction of their opposition complete. To destroy places, writings, and texts not only destroyed the physical existence of these cultures, but also their cultural knowledge. German Nazis and the Taliban in the Middle East offer a couple of examples. It became such a problem during World War II that in 1954 the U.N. adopted the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to protect cultural heritage. They explain that cultural heritage reflects the life of the community, its history and its identity. Its preservation helps to rebuild broken communities, re-establish their identities, and link their past with their present and future.
While no one here in America is engaging in intentional cultural cleansing, our history with Native Americans is well-known and documented. Our actions have bespoken an arrogance and preference for our own history over theirs, or even worse, the seizure and ownership of their history as our own, using it for prestige or profit. Like putting a new coat of paint across a mural, we have been writing over the rich history of those who came before us, and thereby in small measure, erasing their presence and cultural identity.
Despite the reality of the spoils of conquest, where we said, “This is now mine,” we eventually embraced a more communal view of natural resources and lands with the designation of public lands for the use and enjoyment of all Americans as a National Heritage and birthright.
The designation of Bears Ears National Monument was an historic if not redemptive event, not just in terms of designating the monument, but in terms of healing broken relationships and a scattered and broken past. Allowing Native Americans to co-manage the monument and have a say in the destiny of their homeland and history not only enables them to reconnect to their past, but in a significant way, to join in the present and move into the future with the rest of Americans as equals.
With a reconvening Congress meeting under new leadership and power, the ever insidious threats to the Antiquities Act and the rich heritage public lands provide is as imperiled as ever. If Congress succeeds in disposing of public lands or undoing the designation of Bears Ears National Monument, it will not only be a slap in the face to Native Americans who have long been waiting to be recognized and treated with dignity and respect, but a slap in the face to all of us who share in the communal access public lands afford. Those landscapes now hold our shared cultural heritage and our identity as well.
Despite his valiant efforts and success at getting the Antiquities Act passed, Lacey’s game and bird law came too late to save the passenger pigeon, with the death of the last bird marking the species extinction in 1914. It was a stunning symbol of the squandering of America’s natural bounty. In a speech to the League of American Sportsmen in 1901, Lacey revealed the depth of his concerns about such waste and misuse of natural resources—about, as he put it, mankind’s “omnidestructive” ways wherein he warned that if the destruction was allowed to continue, the world would “become as useless as a sucked orange (Sellars, 2007).”
If we are not vigilant, we may live to see the extinction not only of the Antiquities Act, but the extinction of our access to public lands and the natural bounty they still hold in wildlife, recreation, solitude, beauty, healing, and history. We may also let the opportunity pass to lock arms with our Native brothers and sisters and create a shared future where their voices add to the depth and meaning of our own.
Post Script: Rep. Chaffetz has withdrawn H.R. 621
In the High Country News Op-ed, “Wildfire has become an uncontrollable force,” by former wildland fire dispatcher Allison Linville, she asserts, “Recent history tells us there’s a new trajectory for wildfire – toward fires that no one can understand, predict, or control.” It’s an interesting if not emotional assertion that deserves a response.
While I appreciate Ms. Linville’s opinion and even agree with some of her points, the statement that wildland fire has become a here-to-fore unseen and unprecedented phenomenon that no one can understand might be true of green firefighters and the public, but it’s not true of seasoned people within the wildland fire community. That being said, suggesting that people are able to control a wildfire to begin with is to state an idea loaded to mislead and confuse.
In order to understand this, one must have a wide historical perspective, some understanding of wildland fire management practices, and be cognizant of linguistic subtleties; taking care that the meanings of the words we choose to use convey the right mental picture within the context that they are being used. Educated opinions form from a composite of facts, voices, and history; if not, they amount to little more than breakroom conversation.
In her article, Linville asserts that decades ago a large fire was 500 acres. I’m not certain where she is getting this idea from. More than 100 years ago the Peshtigo Fire in 1871 burned 1.5 million acres and killed between 1200 and 2500 people, and the Big Burn in 1910, the largest wildfire in history, burned 3.5 million acres that spanned three states, including the pan handle of Idaho. It killed roughly 90 people, mostly untrained firefighters. While these fires are not the norm, they certainly provide a mental backdrop for what agencies could face in any fire season.
But the size of a fire only tells a small part of the story. What made the Peshtigo Fire and the Big Burn so terrible was the intensity and behavior of the fire. They were virtual wildfire tornadoes. According to Linville’s article, a homeowner in California described the fire there in 2015 as a tornado. She then goes on to say that what everyone needs to understand is that we have no model for this kind of fire – but we do, it’s in our history.
What made the fires 100 years ago so large and tragically memorable had more to do with the loss of life due to settlements in heavily forested or wilderness areas, irresponsible or ignorant industry practices, and climate. I suspect the danger of many of the fires today are a result of some of the same things – the most significant being homes in the wildland urban interface surrounded by trees and grass, compounded by drought.
In terms of wildfire management, a lot has changed in the last 100 years, but not much has changed in terms of what we cannot control – climate, topography, and weather. Fire has not found a new way to burn or to kill. The only thing we can control is how we engage it – and that has changed significantly over the decades.
When Ms. Linville talks about controlling a fire, whether intentionally or not, she gives the illusion that we can control a fire. Saying we can control wildfire is like saying we can control the wind. We have found ways to make use of the wind, to “harness” it as they say, but if it doesn’t blow, we can’t go and turn it back on. The same is true of wildfire. We can try to use it, work with it, and attempt to coral it; we can try to cut it off, smother it, or protect people and structures from it, but we can’t control it.
In certain circumstances we can try to manage it by letting it burn and digging line and using the wind to try to determine where it burns – but the conditions for doing that must be right. The thing about wildlfire is that it has the manners of a wildlfire.
Therefore, how we choose to engage wildfire is determined by what we know about its behavior in given weather and terrain based on knowledge and experience. But how we engage it is also determined by politics, culture, and public sentiment – all of which are as dynamic and unpredictable as wildfire.
Because of those things, wildland fire “management” is ever evolving – changing with the ebb and flow of public sentiment, running effectively or hindered by policy and budget changes, and adapting with new perceptions, new science, more knowledge, and on-the-ground lessons learned. But management is a loaded word with many meanings and must be used with care, especially in the context of something so wily and uncontrollable as wildfire.
First, fire managers manage people not fires. They manage how people attack, monitor, and engage the fire. Fire management involves decisions about how to fight a fire, whether to suppress or to contain, what to let burn and where to let it burn, and how to do all of that while being safe and dealing with uncontrollable factors like weather. It’s a hard job no matter how you slice it.
Second, no matter how you try to “manage” a fire, it’s not a pet. There are a lot of moving parts that you have no control over and that can blow the best laid plans to pieces. Managers do the best they can with the knowledge and experience they have, the tools at their disposal, and all within a set budget. It’s an inherently hectic, busy to the point that most people can’t understand, and complicated machine. Given how complicated and dangerous it is, they do a phenomenal job.
Like the fire triangle, fire management can be summed in three objectives: 1. Life first (firefighters and the public), 2. Protect structures and infrastructure, and 3. Incorporate a whole landscape approach to managing wildfire by containing or manipulating the wildfire and using it like a tool to meet scientific standards that define a healthy ecosystem. Sound impossible? It pretty much is, but the wildland fire community comes pretty damn close.
We have to be careful with the words we use. Suggesting that no one knows how to manage wildlfires today is patently false. From ground pounders to seasoned fire managers, they know how to fight fire. What fire managers don’t know how to manage is public ignorance, overly simplified opinions, dwindling budgets, and whimsical politics. As for predicting or controlling wildfires, no, there’s no real way to do that. That’s why it’s called fire fighting.
I can’t speak to 2015 being the worst fire season on record, though it wouldn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is the assertion that somehow no one can manage it. Fire seasons getting longer and worse, if they really are, has more to do with climate change than knowledge or tools, which again is exacerbated not by firefighters, managers, or weather, but by those in Congress (backed by citizens) who dismiss science and cut or manipulate budgets to push agendas or to control politically expedient outcomes.
Perhaps it’s our perception of wildfire that needs to be managed, in conjunction with being cognizant of where and how we live, in order to understand not only what it takes to protect from it, but how to benefit from and use it. That requires humility, taking some time to learn, having the ability to listen, and keeping an open mind.
Our relationship to the land is constantly evolving; our relationship to wildfire should be no different. Fire is among man’s oldest tools. If we can learn to work with wildfire it could be one of the greatest tools at our disposal on a landscape scale, doing quickly and cheaply what would take agencies decades in man power and labor and millions of dollars to accomplish.
There is a need to protect life, a need to protect fragile landscapes that have not adapted to wildfire, and there is a need to fight fires born of human carelessness; but beyond that, wildfires are as natural as sunshine, rain, and wind. It wouldn’t hurt us in many instances to let it do what it does best because many landscapes are cleansed and rejuvenated by it. To interfere in that process beyond watching, learning, and taking precautionary measures is to meddle in something we’d be wiser to leave alone.
Prediction and control are fickle and illusory words typically shown for what they are with hindsight and history. They should be used with care and defined clearly within the setting or context in which they are being used in order to convey an accurate picture, as well as to teach, explain, and to elicit understanding. Otherwise they will make fools of us all.
The beauty of public lands rests in the sense of acceptance and belonging you feel when you enter them. You do not have to ask someone’s permission to be there or feel like you have invaded someone’s property or space. Visiting them is being home no matter which state you happen to be in. They enable you to be free in your own country and to feel your existence is hampered by no one and nothing. Public land means freedom to breath, to roam, to play, to escape, to see, to enter, and to exist – alone or in community. From snowy peaks to desert floors: a taste of California.
Written by Dallas Hyland. First published in The Southern Utah Independent.
It can be reasonably stated — and anyone would be hard-pressed to disagree — that on Sept. 12, 2001, there were no Republicans or Democrats in the United States. In the wake of the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, the only people you could find in this country were Americans, united in our grief and our resolve to defend not only our country but every single person in it.
While from a historical perspective that unity was somewhat short-lived, it was poignant and something to be remembered. Sometimes, as Americans, we need to set aside lesser differences and keep our eye on the ball together. Our enemies do.
Fifteen years later, America has a new common enemy. But uniting us on that front will be much more difficult than in the wake of an attack, because it is being meticulously carried out by measured and calculated individuals who wish to keep us divided on the matter for the purpose of their success.
There are some individuals who guise themselves as Constitutionalists. But they are in fact proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing who, if successful in their plans to transfer federally managed lands to individual states’ control, will set into motion an irreversible devastation on our country.
First, it is important to clear something up. While the terminology in the public lands battle varies from “take back” the lands to “transfer control” of the lands, neither has any legal ground whatsoever. The Constitution does not state that the government is under any compunction to comply with these demands, and the legislators and lobbyists who propose so know it.
In fact, as a condition for entering the union, ten states have disclaimed all legal rights and titles to unappropriated public lands. And at least two of the ten, Nevada and Utah, have it in their state constitutions. The other states are Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.
So why, for instance, is Utah mounting a taxpayer-funded $14 million lawsuit to transfer control of the land? Is it because it, like the embroiled and possibly justifiably angry ranchers, needs someone to fight the big government bad guys and “defend freedom?”
Sincere and heartfelt empathy for that iconic group of Americans who are in the twilight years of their relevance notwithstanding … ranchers, you are being used. Used to ratchet up the emotion and embolden a cause that, if successful, will leave you even worse off than you are now.
Want to know how that might be true? Just look at what western states have historically done with the “trust lands” awarded to them by the federal government in exchange for relinquishing claims to public property. The lands are by and large utilized for extraction industries, logging, mining, and real estate development.
To be clear, that is what the trust land is for. But there is no indication that the legislators who wish to push this land war are telling ranchers — or any of us, for that matter — that their mandate is to maximize profit. The only way to do that is to sell to the highest bidders, and ranchers simply won’t be at that auction. None of us will.
Ken Ivory, the former executive director of the Americans Lands Council and Republican member of the Utah House of Representatives, recently left his post at the ALC to take his public-lands message to an even larger national audience with the South Carolina-based group Federalism in Action. It’s a group, mind you, that is affiliated with extreme right-winged agendas and organizations funded by the Koch brothers.
The bills and litigation the likes of what Ivory pushes literally have not a chance of succeeding in federal court, but perhaps that is not their intent. Remember that “keep your eye on the ball” thing? Their intent is to rally support in Congress where a majority vote for a proposal — like the one from Sen. Mike Lee that would have, in essence, gutted the Antiquities Act — could aptly be a huge victory for their greedy plan.
Are you following here? The state of Utah is waging a frivolous $14 million lawsuit that it knows it has no chance of winning in the name of something it touts as in the best interest of the public when, in fact, the real agenda is to rally support from its misinformed constituency. It’s called a successful loss, and this is because $14 million is a small price to pay to keep a Republican majority in Utah, one that will be led blindly into the trap of taking over the land, only to see it sold off to extraction companies that will yield trillions for themselves and their bought-and-paid-for politicians.
Who most wants control of these lands? Commodities exploiters.
And if they succeed, the use of these lands that are guaranteed and protected for all Americans will be available to less of them and at a prohibitively higher cost to them than it has ever been under federal management.
The people waging this land war have their eye on the ball for sure. They’re hoping we don’t.
Think about it.
See you out there.
To truly grapple with how an individual or society should build an ecologically aesthetic ethic that informs aesthetic judgments and guides subsequent decisions and aesthetic action toward the natural world, the individual and/or society must see the environment from an understanding of both aesthetic moral philosophy and informed cultural taste. Taste being the result of an educational process and awareness of elite cultural values learned through exposure to academic rigor and mass culture.
Ecological aesthetics then is virtuous judgments and behavior based on the understanding of the principles of beauty and artistic taste within the context of the environment through the act (or art) of thought, sensory experience, and learned historic, scientific, and cultural knowledge, to inform moral action.
In order to produce ecologically aesthetic action, our ethics must be driven by what is good as informed by what is both morally and scientifically known, and we must be able to judge ecological aesthetic value through critical reflection and the ability to discriminate at a rational and sensory level.
This requires a cognitive approach to the environment that means being capable of aesthetic judgments that are sensory, emotional, and intellectual all at once. The implication being that our response must inherently be one of informed action – mental, physical, and spiritual – and be both objective and subjective, as observer and actor.
I think the hope of this ethic taking root lies in the outdoor industry and through recreationists who sustain it by their love of the outdoors. I think this because I see signs of it already and because I am both a conservationist and a recreationist and I know that recreation is inherently a sensory experience, but can be so much more if it is informed by knowledge and guided by ethics.
Who better to protect the beautiful than those who use it, play in it, and appreciate it? Recreationists are those most poised to be the keepers and protectors of the world’s greatest art.
Nature is nothing if it is not art on a grand scale. When we actively play with it, it plays back with us and infuses us with a solid sense of self. To actively engage nature is a visceral experience that grounds us and helps us vividly realize our place not just in the landscape, but in the grand scheme of life. In other words, the by product is both confidence and humility – the character traits most needed when engaging nature. It is an active relationship and if we want it to continue we must participate beyond sport and adventure.
We cannot afford to just play hard and rest easy. We must work hard also, and that work entails fighting to protect the individual parts in order to protect the whole.
If we need proof that it is possible for one person or a group of people to make a difference, or if we need inspiration for what to do, there are many forerunners to look to, but none so near to us as Doug Tompkins.
In the aftermath of Tompkins’ death we know if we didn’t already, the impact a recreationist-turned-conservationist can have on the world. By his own words, Doug’s love of the land grew out of climbing – the art of touching, and feeling, and being alive – of becoming a moving form among the earth’s most dramatic forms, with the earth’s most subtle elements. His love of climbing set into motion a lifetime of work attempting to protect and restore the beautiful – to live harmoniously in its folds. Like many adventurers before him, he died in nature’s embrace, but I doubt he would have had it any other way.
What Doug Tompkins left behind was a picture or a blueprint of what that relationship looks like. His ethic wasn’t just a land ethic, or a biodiversity ethic, or a conservation ethic. It was an aesthetic ethic informed by deep ecology that was dedicated to protecting the whole – whole rivers, whole landscapes that blend ecologically sound agriculture with land buffers between eco-zones and protected areas, and ultimately, whole places for people to find reprieve, to find rest and beauty, to find solitude, and to find unfettered adventure.
What Doug realized was that our actions on this planet matter. He recognized that we could do better; that he could do better. He realized that is some small way he could do something about it and he acted. Doug embarked on a journey to repair some of the parts in order to bring back balance, harmony, and sanity to the whole. He set out to restore an aesthetically pleasing piece of art, not one that he created mind you, but one that humans had the privilege to use, and through our use trammeled and tore apart.
But rather than a painting, a sculpture, or a poem, he set to restore a golden ratio on a landscape scale. He manipulated, protected, and shaped the land into a piece of art that amounts to the correctly shaped piece that fits into the hole of the picture by working with nature, rather than against it. He has shown us another way.
Doug did not dismiss agriculture or the economy, but he did dismiss the excess that destroys the beautiful. He worked to renovate farmland to work in concert with the natural landscape rather than allowing agriculture to continue to be an aberration on nature.
He worked to maintain the integrity of rivers, thus ensuring the environmental benefits they provide within the riparian areas, but also within the larger ecosystem, and he worked to restore the life-giving properties that benefit humanity. In short, Doug Tompkins was a landscape aesthetician. If one man can do all of that, can you imagine what hundreds of thousands of recreationists could do?
Doug Tompkins said, “I’m an unabashed, shameless conservationist. I know everyone doesn’t have my resources, but I say don’t worry, do things to the best of your ability because you’ll find it rewarding and helpful and it’s paying rent for living on the planet. So just do it. Just do it.”
The astounding truth about seeing the environment as a beautiful object is that it is a living, breathing, shifting and moving essence experienced by all and owned by no one. It is free but priceless. It is complex but simple. It produces the greatest paradox of pleasure and pain and how we interact with it says something about us.
As Immanuel Kant said, experiencing, sensing, and understanding the sublime produces aesthetic pleasure which is a byproduct of the free play between the imagination and understanding when perceiving an object; in this case, nature.
“Beauty belongs neither exclusively to the subject nor to the object,” said Crispin Sartwell inThe Six Names of Beauty, “but to the relationship between them, and even more widely also to the situation or environment in which they are both embedded.”
When we infuse ourselves in nature, which we are already doing through recreation and sport, and should do on a philosophical and societal level, beauty then emerges in situations in which we and it are juxtaposed and connected. We all inherently know this by the love we feel for specific places and the things we do and experience there. We love what we invest in.
Alexander Nehamas said that beauty is something we share, or something we want to share, and shared experiences of beauty are particularly intense forms of communication. Thus, the experience of beauty is not primarily within the skull of the experiencer, but connects observers and objects such as works of art and literature – or nature – in communities of appreciation.
In terms of this country, and our laws, and our natural resources, we recreationists are a powerful tribe existing in a community of appreciation at a unique time in history. We are in the transitional stage between the end of the industrial revolution and the crest of the recreational revolution. Now more than at any other time we are the largest user group of public lands. Tourism and recreation in this country make up a multi-billion dollar industry which gives us a collective voice with immense power to sway. We, more than any other group, have the power to use our dollars, and our numbers, and our industry to be heard.
Following in the steps of arguably one of the most influential recreationists of all time, we could save a threatened river right here in the United States. The San Pedro River is the embodiment of natural integrity. All of the parts that make up the riparian system are a complete and balanced, if not fragile, whole. The running water, the landscape it inhabits and the vegetation and wildlife all come together in an orchestra of unified and harmonious balance. But it could disappear. It could become a phantom river if we don’t act.
Just this year the city council of Benson, Arizona, approved a 28,000 home development that will pull 3,000 acre feet of groundwater annually from the central corridor of the San Pedro River watershed. The developers plan to build an Italian countryside in the Sonoran Desert. The town of Benson will get an economic boost and will swell to what could reasonably be called gargantuan proportions compared to what it is now. The Arizona Department of Water Resources just gave the development approval by certifying that there is enough water for 100 years.
The development sounds wonderful and no one can argue with jobs and quality of life, but this is not just a question of fulfilling societal desires, it is a question of ethical behavior. Desiring economic benefits is not inherently bad, it’s the means we use to get those benefits that is questionable. Sometimes desires need to be set aside in order to do what is right and doing what is right is difficult because it’s almost always the harder option. It requires either creativity to find a better solution, or it requires humility to abandon the proposed action.
What we should be asking in this case is not whether there is enough water for a finite period of time, but whether the San Pedro River will still be there when we are done.
The BLM and conservation groups have raised alarm and complaints about this development, but if they are to be heard or have any hope of success, the San Pedro River needs more than just local support and requires much more attention than it is getting.
We know what is happening there and what is at stake and everyone who enjoys the natural world, from anglers to mountaineers, photographers to snowboarders, families and individuals, extreme athletes and weekend warriors, and everyone else in between, need to wake up because what happens in one localized area does not happen in isolation; it happens to us all. Everything is connected to everything else as they say, and we are connected to each other through our shared experience and enjoyment of the earth. We must care on an intimate and personal level and then amplify it on a wide scale.
We may never walk the green fairyland of the San Pedro River making its way through the arid Sonoran Desert. We may never even set eyes on it. But we should attempt to ensure its existence because if there is hope for the survival of any wild or natural place, it is whether or not we rise to the challenge and fight for the provisional and elusive character of the aesthetic qualities found in nature everywhere.
We must heed our restlessness and stay alert in our search for ever new standpoints in our drive for adventure and meaning – and then act. Otherwise we stand to lose it all, whether from industry and pollution, development and growth, by state and local representatives trying to take it for personal gain or local interest – or by nature being so thrown out of balance by our actions that humanity suffers the consequences on a large and frightening scale.
The San Pedro River existed long before we arrived and should carry on long after we are gone. On the canvas of the earth, it is a marvel worthy of preservation at least equal to civilization’s greatest works of art. Ecological aesthetics is the idea that human conduct and behavior should reflect and align with what is natural by respecting limits. Maintaining beauty is the byproduct of acting beautifully. Though we are separate from nature, we are also dependent on and a part of it. This fact alone should compel us to act humbly and in concert with nature rather than against it. Humanity will have accomplished something noteworthy when it is better known for its restraint than its excess.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Environmental Aesthetics
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Concept of the Aesthetic
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Beauty
Tuscon.com, Arizona Daily Press: Massive Benson development wins approval,
Tuscon.com, Arizona Daily Press: Development would make Benson 8 times bigger
Audubon Magazine: Housing development could threaten Arizona’s San Pedro River
John McCain and the Renzy Rider, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/media-archive/SanPedroMcCain6-26-08.pdf
Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty, R.W. Hepburn: http://hettingern.people.cofc.edu/Env_Aes_2012/r_w_hepburn_contemporary_aesthetics.pdf
Wolin, Sheldon S. (2006). Politics and Vision. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.