Public Lands Calculations and Creating the Conservation Chip

By Bob Ferris
 
When pocket calculators first came out in the early 1970s some of us had some fun with these devices revolving Old Growth Tree in Sale Parcelaround tasking them with calculating imaginary numbers like the square root of -1 or with getting these slide rule replacements to find values for irrational numbers such as π.  What answer or response you received from your new pocket companion was largely driven by what chip or chips your magical device used.  
 
The above experience and the chips come to mind as I look at the current debates over federal public lands.  Because many involved in the debate appear to be missing the necessary logic chips including one I might call the “conservation chip.”  They also need to spend a little time with a calculator working with some real and relevant numbers.
 
I have had a bunch of discussions with folks lately about the importance of the existence and condition of land—mainly federal land.  These discussions have become more frequent because ranching, timber and energy interests have been arguing that we have an “overabundance” of federal public lands that should be privatized or given to the states or counties.  They are also arguing that we need to do away with the Endangered Species Act and weaken the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act which is all related to their desires for unfettered access to federal public lands and use of our other public assets (i.e., waterways and air) as dumping grounds for their wastes.  
 
They are achieving some success because they are using a media machine often fatally crippled by the loss of the Fairness Doctrine.  They are helped in this by a fertile political construct enabled greatly by the wide open barn door of Citizen’s United. Both of which are then applied towards a populace that has been largely and purposely deprived of the educational advantage they once enjoyed.   
 
Rancher Bundy is escorted in BunkervilleHow else can anyone explain why a man like Cliven Bundy who is breaking the law, trashing wildlife habitat and costing the American taxpayers millions in grazing, legal and law enforcement costs could gain any sympathetic press coverage at all?  Moreover, on what planet does it make sense for any elected officials at any level supposedly acting in the interests of their constituencies and adhering to the US Constitution to stand up for this sort of behavior?  And how can anyone who enjoys hiking, hunting, fishing, bird watching or dozens of other outdoor pursuits that take place on federal lands express support for Bundy’s selfishness and think that their activities will be enhanced by privatization or increased exploitation of these lands? 
 
I ascribe this all to the anatomical equivalent of a missing logic chip because it functions so much like that.  This missing chip hypothesis is also compelling because it not only explains the disconnect on the value of federal public lands, but elegantly squares with the pattern of rural folks continually electing those who so often vote against rural interests and those of hunters and anglers on issues like climate change, grazing, road building, and energy development. 
 
I have introduced the idea of the missing chip, but what about the calculator?  In the 1990s if you looked at the per capita federal land ownership in the US we all had about 2.6 acres of land each, if we were to dissolve the federal estate and distribute it equally.  By 2010 we had added more than 50 million people to the mix and at the same time disposed of something like 18 million acres of federal lands.  So when we look at our per capita ownership of these lands held in trust for us in 2010 they had dropped to around 2.03 acres each.  We had essentially taken a 22% hit in the arena. Ouch.  
 
Seneca Clearcut at Dawn
But the news gets worse.  Now that climate change is upon us it takes more land to provide the same value to wildlife, watersheds and us.  So if our elected officials were watching out for this element of our lives they would have not only corrected and reversed this growing public lands deficit but they would also have made corrections to accommodate for the impacts of climate change out of concern over our decreased quality of life.  But this is really not what we are seeing and we should be asking why before we lose another 22%.  
 
Moreover, the above really does not take into account the ecological and economic discount that these lands are suffering from road building, over-grazing, clearcutting, fracking, alien invasive species and unrestored open-pit mining for coal.  
 
Just as pocket calculators evolved and improved the quality of their chips, the conservation movement must do so as well. Essentially we all need to work to not only broadly install the missing logic chip referenced above but also install an upgraded “conservation” chip too.  So how do we do that in the face of a broken media machine, an increasingly compromised political system and a less than informed public?
 
First, we must become the media.  We must use the social media networks we have created to broaden the reach of a whole school of conservation writers and environmental commentators who live comfortably in the intellectual border lands between environmental advocates and those who hunt and fish.  On this list I would include Ted Williams, Hal Herring, Todd Tanner, David StallingDavid Petersen, Jim Posewitz, Brenda Peterson, and Todd Wilkinson.   Please follow them, read their works and then spread them around your networks far and wide.  (And a huge apology to those writer frends who I missed.)
 
We lose political power and influence when we narrow our circle and artificially make our movement a collection of minorities by only working with those with shared views and lifestyles rather than those with shared public lands interests.  So support and promote the work of those organizations that understand the peril we all face from these various exploitive quarters, are working these issues hard, and looking to rebuild bridges between historic allies—the type exemplified by the odd-couple alliance between John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt.  I think—though they may not know it yet—that Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ campaign for keeping public lands public is a good example of a bridge rebuilding issue.  The same is true for our work to find a conservation solution on the Elliott State Forest in Oregon that benefits marbled murrelets, elk and Coho salmon.  Political power and the will to bring change springs from these alliances.  
 
It is important to remember when thinking about the critical nature of this bridge building that vegetarians and hunters both use and enjoy benefits from federal public lands and they are both minorities in this country.  If these diverse factions focus on their differences in a broccoli versus beef manner much energy will be wasted and nothing gained.  But if they make the dialogue about needing more public land rather than less and better management of the lands we all own, the outcome is much more likely to be positive for this generation and the next.
 
And lastly, we all have to be active, effective voices for conservation.  If our education system fails to help folks sort all of this out and find the proper path, we will have to constantly and respectfully educate people and provide them with facts.  You can bet that those who want to exploit the economic and ecological chaos they have created for their own gain will be pulling out all the stops to continue in an unsustainable manner.  (Todd Wilkinson and I will be doing exactly this for two week next month, I would encourage others to do this as well.)
 
Our strengths are in our numbers…if we stick together, the facts…if we stick to them, and our visions for the future…if we really want a better world rather than one that is disintegrating at an accelerated pace.