Friday, May 17, 2013

This Land Was Made for You and Me

This Land Is Your Land
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.
I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

We are living in difficult, strange times. Many ideas that I've held my whole life such as principles of conservation and the common good are being turned upside down. Some days I feel like Alice in Wonderland as things just keep getting "curiouser and curiouser". Except that Alice woke up and it was all a dream, while our nightmare is real. In our crazy world, selfishness and ignorance rule the day while acting in the common interest and rigorous intellectual inquiry have become negative and suspect. And part of this mass insanity is the idea that publicly held land has been taken away from "the people" by the government and needs to be "taken back". In Utah, where I grew up, this attitude has been working into a frenzy that started in the 70's with the "Sagebrush Rebellion" among the western states. Some people out there feel that the government is infringing on their right to own land and to exploit it to its full potential. In Utah, nearly 80% of the land is under federal or state management, in the form of national and state parks, national and state forests, wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management land. Those who want to take back the land see Public Land as a power grab by the government and an unwarranted interference into their right to the resources (read "oil, coal, gas, grazing, recreational off road vehicles, development"). Never mind the fragile and unique nature of the lands in question, or that the western states never owned the land in the first place. (In "Living Dry", Wallace Stegner reminds us that the land was federal before the Western States ever came into existence, so there's no "giving back" to be done.) In this weird scenario, the idea of Public Lands has been turned around, distorting it into some kind of "governmental abuse". But the premise behind protecting public lands is to serve the common good. Public Lands as they stand belong to every citizen of the U.S., as well as visitors from all over the world. They will not be developed into towns or roads or oil refineries. The plants and animals are protected. The air is clean. It is quiet. There is enough land that there are wildlife corridors. Land that is protected now will be there for future generations. The energy (oil) lobby has been successful in whittling away at this land, however, and there are now roads and oil derricks all over BLM land. Fracking isn't too far behind. There is a constant fight to maintain the boundaries of the national parks and monuments. The battle in Utah and in the West over the fate of Public Lands is fierce and ongoing. I am increasingly thankful for all the hard work of the people fighting to protect our natural heritage.

Butte in Desolation Canyon, Utah, on BLM Land
Here in Gainesville, we have a related and potentially precedent setting problem. Gainesville has a vibrant program of purchasing and conserving sensitive natural areas and turning them into nature parks. They become Nature Sanctuaries, where the plants, animals and artifacts are protected, and they contribute to our city's greenway. There are pockets of protected habitat sprinkled all over the city, with attention given to providing nature corridors wherever possible. The problem is that a wealthy and politically powerful property owner has approached the City with a proposal to purchase a section of conservation land that borders his property. He has offered a significant amount of money. A million dollars for about 5 acres. This puts the City in the politically difficult position of possibly turning down money in a time when cash is short, or accepting it and selling out our shared resource to a wealthy person, just because he wants it. The land wasn't for sale. In fact, the City purchased it in order to protect sensitive land. It was an important tract or they wouldn't have purchased it. There are endangered plant species on the property and it connects with a larger protected area that runs through the heart of the city. The wealthy person says he wants a buffer around his property to keep strangers from walking through. Someone argued for him that he will be able to protect the land better than the City can, and others say that the City should take the money and buy an important parcel that would help add more protection to the same large piece of land. But this is not the point. If he owns the land, it becomes private. It is not part of the public holdings. He can do with it what he likes. He'll probably fence in the property, which means that he will cut off that land from other sections. Animals will not be able to travel freely from one end to the other. No one will be able to see the property or enjoy it. The City Commission agreed yesterday to consider this proposal. In our new political climate, and with a new conservative Mayor coming on board in a few weeks, there is a good chance that it will pass. There is still time to try to fight, though, and I think it's important to try.
Invasive/Exotic Air Potato Cleanup in Mason Manor, Next to the Property in Question
This brings me back to the topsy turvy times we're in. When did the Common Good become a bad thing? How can you give Public Land back to "the People"? The Government is us and we are "The People". It is already our land! I am just baffled over the twisted logic. But the fact is that once land is taken out of the "Public" control and given to "the People", it becomes private. Private land with no accountability. No visibility. No access. No constraints. In these science-denying times where it is predicted that we will lose thousands of species in the next century to loss of habitat and climate change it becomes ever more important to protect what we can. Someone once described land conservation in a way I hadn't thought of before. The person said basically that we tend to think of protected land as pieces of a pie. What difference does it make if we just cut off a small slice--develop just a little bit? What we forget is that the pie we see now is only a fraction of the original pie. The pie has been growing smaller and smaller as we have developed more and more. If we continue whittling away at that wilderness pie, pretty soon there will be no pie to take slices from.

Belted Kingfisher in Mason Manor, Next Door to the Property
Public Land is our Natural Heritage. It's our National Heritage. We need to fight to keep the Public Land public.

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