Profiteering on Public Lands
By Gloria Flora

This appeared as a guest column in Headwaters, the on-line news service of the Rocky Mountain West, February 2003.

Our public lands are the nation's natural treasure chest; a vast repository of goods, services, opportunities and experiences. Treasures for us to benefit from now, and for the benefit of future generations. And the Bush administration has both hands plunged deep into the chest, not just to extract resources today but to lay the groundwork for maximizing profits to industry for years to come.

Bush's appointees didn't need an orientation to understand the agencies they now control. As industry representatives or lobbyists they worked with those same agencies. On entering their new offices, they used their intimate familiarity with the fine print to modify regulations that vexed them. Indeed, regulations are being changed at an unprecedented rate, paving the way for easier access and ensured liquidation and privatization of many of our national treasures.

Using the example set by the corporations that formerly employed these appointees, the administration has turned on our national parks and forests in a hostile takeover. The traditional multi-million dollar bonus to the CEO came first: the campaign funds to get him into office. To please corporate stockholders, our natural capital is now available to the highest bidder.

Industry is lining up to reap the harvest of campaign investment. Numerous memos leaked to the press show that industry is drafting Executive Orders and regulations that guarantee their unfettered access to resources on public lands. The problem is, this industrial largesse compromises our natural legacy to our children: the headwaters of the nation, prime habitat for most wildlife and fish species, the settings for the majority of recreation in the U.S., and the last of our untrammeled landscapes.

The ultimate lesson, yet unlearned by this Administration, is that public lands cannot and should not be run as a for-profit business. Business necessarily concerns itself with the quarterly bottom-line. National parks and forests require management based on the long-term. Millions of unborn Americans will also depend on the resources of public lands, requiring that sustainable management. Activities that do not foster productive, thriving ecosystems over time detract from our well-being as well as that of future generations.

Ecosystems are comprised of elements and processes. We assign a dollar value to those elements that can be commodified but we fail to place a value on the processes, services that nature provides. These natural processes are unduplicative by humans: producing oxygen, absorbing carbon dioxide, recycling nutrients, converting sunlight to living matter through photosynthesis, filtering and storing vast quantities of water, holding slopes in place. The list is endless but in the Bush business model, the value of these services is ignored.

Likewise, the true environmental and social costs and benefits are not calculated in standard economic analyses. If the costs of Superfund sites clean-up, toxins, nuclear wastes and the human lives they have compromised were accurately accounted for at project inception, most such projects would have been implemented quite differently.

Privatization of services and natural resources is another business paradigm that sours when dealing with the public interest. Witness the abysmal condition of airline security when under private control; hire the least qualified for the lowest wage, relax standards, eliminate training and minimize infrastructure investments. Now project that to our national parks – the next target for privatization under the Bush administration.

We go to national parks for the experience, for the expertise that the interpretive staff and park scientists provide, for the care they take to preserve our common heritage. What will our experiences be like when services, professionalism and even wildlife are managed for profitability? Can you picture former airport security guards stuffed into Park Service uniforms - disgruntled, unqualified, and underpaid - in charge of our national treasures? Will carnival rides be installed next to Old Faithful to augment the income stream?

We may speculate about the future, but this administration's actions over the past two years sets a chilling trend. Despite this administration's claim that they favor local control and public involvement, they consistently undermine, curtail and retract proposals that do not align with industry desires. Working under the business paradigm, science and common sense are abandoned on the road to fast riches; not for local communities but for corporate coffers.

In 1999, in an attempt to end years of wrangling, the Forest Service announced the Roadless Initiative, a moratorium on road-building in currently unroaded areas. Despite 25 years under court direction to quantify and slow development in remaining roadless areas, those areas were routinely roaded and logged. Important wildlife habitats were fragmented and erosion exacerbated by yet more roads, despite a burgeoning $8 billion backlog of road maintenance needs.

Extensive public meetings -- over 600 -- were held nationwide and an Environmental Impact Statement completed. Over a million people responded with overwhelming support. In one of the first acts of the Bush Administration, the Roadless Initiative was squelched. They reopened the comment period, claiming insufficient public involvement. Another million supportive comments poured in. They refused to defend the Initiative in court or to fund its implementation. Only the courts have saved the Initiative thus far.

The issue of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park was scientifically analyzed with full participation of industry, scientists, local business and the public. After extensive deliberation, snowmobile use was to be phased out. Over 800,000 people wrote in support of this decision. With the snowmobile industry whispering in his ear, Bush determined that this effort was flawed. After a brief review, the analysis was changed and, despite continuing overwhelming scientific and public support for a ban, the restrictions were lifted.

Rewriting science to suit this administration is nothing new. Witness the sudden change in the conclusion that oil development would have negative effects on caribou and other wildlife in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The results of that multi-year study were rewritten in one week.

The public, civil servants and scientists aren't the only ones disregarded. After the wildfires of 2000, the Western Governors' Association brought together a diverse group to collaboratively establish an ecosystem health initiative focusing on fuels reduction at the wildland/urban interface. Before the ink could dry, the Bush administration supplanted that plan with a more aggressive version in which thinning was 'balanced' by the harvest of mature trees (which survive fire very well) across all forested lands. In a hurry for profits, environmental studies that provide guidelines for mitigation of negative effects are foregone in this 'Healthy Forests Initiative.'

Although the goals sound reasonable, the real intention was revealed by the selection of the Initiative's leader. Mr. Allan Fitzsimmons dismisses environmental and social costs from project considerations, insisting that the private sector provide simple economic solutions. He has stated that ecosystems don't exist. He believes that there are no complex, interconnected webs of life in nature: it's just stuff, some of it worth money.

The litany continues with the overturning of the years of study and collaborative agreement to re-introduce grizzly bears into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. In a matter of days, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, held a private meeting with a few hand-picked locals and determined that grizzly bears weren't going to be re-introduced.

Even decisions years old are targeted. Some profoundly disturbing provisions in the energy bill that passed the House of Representatives allowed for the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to review past decisions about access to public lands for oil and gas leasing. If they found the arguments 'no longer persuasive', they were authorized to change the decision.

Another provision shifted decision-making about oil and gas leasing from local Forest Supervisors to the Under-Secretary for Agriculture. Essentially, a former timber lobbyist, sequestered in Washington, will decide the course of energy development on some of the most significant undeveloped lands remaining in our national forests. He's the same man who authored the ill-fated Salvage Rider. Economic gain trumping public involvement, science and law remains an administration constant.

National Forest planning regulations are the latest casualty of this administrations' wide scythe of business-first, environmental arrogance. A diverse committee of preeminent scientists conducted a two-year study including extensive public involvement. Their recommendations lead to a sound, science-based set of planning regulations focused on long-term sustainability of ecosystems while meeting human needs.

The administration overturned those regulations in favor of a milquetoast facsimile. This new direction allows forests to forego environmental analyses: to just make a plan with no formal assessment of cumulative effects. Despite having no environmental analyses by which to evaluate the effects of the alternatives, the public may participate; but no appeals are allowed, only objections with no teeth. Actual environmental analyses will be done for some (not all) future projects. We're told we can appeal then, maybe.

These unfortunately are only the most blatant examples. Efforts to privatize, commodify and liquidate the values of our natural capital on public lands show no sign of abating. Until the public makes it perfectly clear that our public lands are not a business opportunity ripe for the next investor, we will continue to subsidize the sale of our natural heritage and our children's legacy.

© Gloria Flora, February 2003