When President Trump and various other marauding Republicans tore the heart out of two national monuments in Utah two weeks ago — stripping the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante of millions of acres for coal mining — and began the process of opening the coastal planes of the National Arctic Wild Life Refuge to oil and gas drilling and allowed logging the old growth in the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest in southeast Alaska, it became clear once again to many of us how integral public lands are to the peace of mind and general health of the American people.
Not only have these Trumpian exploitations been in the service of the greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuel industry and developers of unsustainable suburban growth, they also just grossly spit in the eye of us all who care for the well-being of our children and grandchildren.
Public land is a gift of the public to itself. By giving ourselves and posterity land that’s protected in part for public enjoyment and reserving some of it for purely human recreational and spiritual “use,” we are demonstrating that in our country we still honor a sacred national ideal — that the well-being of the populous is as important as making money. Right from the start of the first decade of the 20th century, we’ve acknowledged that public lands are more than commodities to be plundered. They are the embodiment of a dignified self-regard on the part of the American people — the hunters, fishers, hikers, bird watchers, travelers, wonder seekers, school kids, and all of us who value the revitalizing relationship that public lands allow us to have with the non-human natural world. That national ideal was dishonored two weeks ago by the party in power.
Think of all the publicly-owned land in New Mexico that all of us use almost unconsciously, sometimes for a rare escape, often as a vibrant background to our harried urban lives. We live surrounded by mountains that are “owned” by the people — the Jemez, the Sandia’s, Mt. Taylor, the West Mesa volcanoes, the Sangre de Cristos — owned either by federal, state or local jurisdictions. Open spaces in and around Albuquerque are largely administered by the city. Go for a hike in the Elena Gallegos open space in the Sandia foothills, stroll through the Bosque, visit the Piedra Lisa, Boca Negra Canyon or the Rio Grande State Park, and you are taking part in an experience preserved for you by far-seeing city and state officials starting more than 40 years ago. What would it be like not to have federal protection for Quari, Abo and Gran Quivera, the Petroglyph National Monument, El Morro National Monument, Aztec Ruins, Tent Rocks, Ghost Ranch, Chaco Canyon, Bandalier, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, or Gila Cliff Dwellings?
Imagine some future president or New Mexico governor or Albuquerque mayor and city council majority taking Trump’s lead reducing the size of those monuments and open spaces just so some companies, maybe even foreign ones, can make more money at our expense. The way things have been going, that’s not just a gloomy fantasy.
Yes, we do tend to take public lands for granted until they are threatened. And yes, what are considered public lands today were in large part stolen from land grant heirs in New Mexico and sovereign tribal peoples all over the country by land grabbers, mining interests, and state and federal governments since the occupation and colonialization of this continent. And it is true that the Trumpian reduction of the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase Escalante and the depredations in Alaska are hardly any different at all from the cunning and often brutal land thefts that created many public lands in the first place.
Put in a European context, public lands in our country are a democratization of the open spaces and natural solitudes that were once the preserves of the hereditary elite. Immigrants from the old world who fled its hierarchies didn’t want to be considered poachers in their new country. And, like the great champion of public lands in America, President Theodore Roosevelt, they literally fell in love with the American landscape, tragically at the expense of those who were already here.
For many people, America’s first naturalist and philosopher, Aldo Leopold, a New Mexican and most important advocate for the creation of the Gila Wilderness, gave voice to ideals of public lands in what he called the “land ethic.” Leopold’s ethical philosophy deals with “human’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” His view has been called “ecocentric” and “holistic.” It sees humanity as part of the natural system and not estranged from it, or in a position of dominance over it.
“A thing is right,” Leopold wrote, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” He further defined this view, saying the “land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals or collectively: the land … land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.” Native Americans and Hispanic farmers and ranchers in New Mexico say they invented the land ethic and have been following it for centuries. And many of us look to them increasingly for guidance.
Trump’s reduction of national monuments, and the opening of public lands for logging and drilling, harken back to the days when the land itself was looked upon as merely an object of wealth, as an entitlement of hereditary endowment, as a kind of carcass to be cut up and rendered into money, as something to take and use, to steal and plunder if you could, not as the very body of health and vigor for all life on the planet, including ourselves.
What Trump and the Republicans did two weeks ago was so retrograde, so backward looking, so regressive it’s the ecological equivalent of being plunged into a Medieval mindset in which the electric light might be seen as the work of the devil.
And we can do little about it but stall in the courts of law until politics becomes once again, for those who love the land, not an ugly necessity but an honorable and even gallant calling to the good.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image derived from photo by Bureau of Land Management)