Beware the man-made threats to federal lands
Television and the newspapers, and our own personal observations, have made us well aware of the “natural” threats to our national parks, national forests and Bureau of Land Management territory: drought, fires and pests.
Fires and bark beetles are destroying our pine and spruce forests at an alarming rate — 46 million acres across the West between 2000 and 2012. In many affected areas, 80 percent of the trees are dead or dying. Global warming is a major cause of this devastation. A warming climate has produced an unprecedented proliferation of beetles, and droughts lead to massive forest fires and reduce the trees’ resistance to beetle attacks. We no longer have the bitter cold, minus-40-degree winter nights that used to kill off most of the beetle larvae.
And it isn’t only the pine and spruce forests that are being decimated. Aspen groves are also dying from yet-unidentified causes, though global warming is a suspect. In just three years (2005-08) the area of dead aspens in Colorado increased from 30,000 acres to well over half a million acres.
The Western U.S. is not the only area losing its forests. Canada is being similarly affected, as is virtually the entire world, posing the threat that the world’s forests will no longer absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, but instead will be giving off CO2.
There are a couple other serious threats to the future of our federal lands, and they are man-made. The more obvious is the so-called “Sagebrush Revolution,” and agitation by many of the Western states to take over the national forests and BLM lands, which occupy over half the area of the 11 states west of the 102nd meridian, ranging from 30 percent of Washington and Montana to 84, 66.5, and 62 percent of Nevada, Utah and Idaho, respectively.
The states involved in the takeover movement are claiming that they are the rightful owners of the federal lands within their boundaries and that those lands should be turned over to them. But they are facing some significant legal problems. In the first place, the United States acquired the area now occupied by these Western states by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, by purchase of land from Texas on its annexation to the U.S. in 1845, by a treaty with Britain in 1846 and from Mexico in 1848, long before most of these states were formed. These lands are owned by the federal government — not by the states.
There is also a constitutional issue: Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states that, “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any claims of the United States, or of any particular State.”
Legitimate concerns about a takeover of federal lands by the states is whether they would have the money to properly maintain them (especially to fight the huge forest fires that are becoming more common), and whether they would be inclined to sell them to avoid that responsibility or fatten their treasuries.
There is another threat that is just as great and far more insidious, and that is corporations and wealthy individuals who would love to get their hands on our public lands as a source of profits by exploiting the resources in the national forests and BLM lands, and privatizing our national parks and converting them into cash cows by charging the public high entrance fees. No longer would the national parks be for the enjoyment of all the people — they would be exclusively for the enjoyment and further enrichment of the aggrandizing wealthy.
Congress, whose purpose is becoming more and more to serve the interests of the wealthy, has been cutting funding for the Park Service, the Forest Service and the BLM to make them look financially deficient, just as they have done to the U.S. Postal Service (which corporate interests would also like to take over) by imposing the financial burden of funding 75 years of future employee retirement benefits in just 15 years.
It is up to us, the vast majority of Americans, to be diligent in preventing our birthright of ready and affordable access to our public lands from being taken away from us by the wealthy few, especially our national parks — “America’s Best Idea.”
Hal Sundin’s “As I See It” column appears on the first Thursday of the month.
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