Dec 5, 2013
Trek West for the Big Picture
Posted on Jun 25, 2013
By Chip Ward, TomDispatch
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, elk hunters, cowboys, gun-nuts, and tea-hadi politicians have worked themselves into an anti-wolf frenzy. Western state legislators have introduced several bills designed to limit and control wolves even if they haven’t seen one in their area for 100 years. They want to trade the wolves’ endangered status under the law for licenses to hunt them. A few days after Davis met the watershed group, the Obama administration caved in to this eco-political hysteria and agreed to remove endangered species protections from wolves. This backlash against reintroduction has been painful for advocates like Davis.
A Greater Canyonlands National Monument Moment?
The decision to lift wolf protection is consistent with the Obama administration’s disappointing record on Western environmental issues. Nevertheless, conservation advocacy groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club are urging the president to take a cue from Bill Clinton’s example. Back in 1996, he created the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument under the Antiquities Act that allows presidents to set aside natural and archaeological treasures. Now, the conservation groups want Obama to do something similar on an even grander scale and create a “Greater Canyonlands National Monument” from some of the healthiest wild lands in southern Utah.
A few days later, Davis addressed the need for such a monument at a forum in Moab, Utah. Our state has about nine million acres of quality wilderness land ready to be designated and protected as such. That’s a lot of core area for John Davis’s conservation vision, a lot of possibility for connectivity. But the public debate about wilderness designation has been stalemated for decades. Utah Republicans in particular resist more steps to formally protect wilderness areas even though the public overwhelmingly supports it.
President Obama’s appointment of Sally Jewel, former CEO of REI, a chain of outdoor gear and clothing stores, may signal a shift away from ranching and mining as the dominant voices on the Western political stage. Jewel understands firsthand that recreation and tourism have become powerful economic engines here.
A presidential initiative alone will hardly begin to settle all the questions we face about how to make peace with the land that holds us in its embrace. But designating another monument here could be a catalyst for an ever-expanding idea of grassroots stewardship of America’s wild lands.
The Escalante watershed partnership was formed in the wake of Clinton’s catalytic act. At that time, the Clinton administration took another experimental step. It gave stewardship of Grand Staircase Escalante to the controversial Bureau of Land Management instead of the National Park Service. That was a first and undoubtedly a concession to Utah’s politicians who would rather deal with the traditionally compliant, pro-mining, pro-grazing BLM than the stricter National Park Service. Clinton gambled that the move might instill a missing environmental ethic in that bureau.
The results on that are not yet in, but there is no question about one thing: Clinton’s creation has been a catalyst for grassroots political activity. When monument status was a done deal, the river’s stakeholders decided the time had finally come to practice that awkward dance of mutuality among conservationists who want to save the land, ranchers who want to use it, and federal land managers charged with sorting out what exactly to do. John Davis is clearly on the side of conservation.
Making the Imaginary Real
The Trek West sponsors recognize that there may never be some grand national initiative to accomplish their vision, nothing like the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, or the other signature environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s. If our troubled public lands are rescued, it’s likely to happen in a piecemeal fashion, as local and regional groups work to improve their own backyards. The folks who gather in Escalante don’t claim to have all the answers. They are not here to spread the truth and save the world. They belong to no ideology or movement. They’re just working on their piece of the puzzle, experimenting and learning as they go. Rivers being the arteries of the land, it makes sense to start there.
An existing constituency almost always trumps an imaginary one. You can make a case, for example, that a change in land use practices and policies would benefit more people, boost the local economy, and be healthier for wildlife, too, but those imaginary winners can’t compete with cattlemen who are real, well organized, and have been active in the political arena for many years. They have established close relationships with local politicians who depend on their support. Because they were there first, they wrote most of the rules and those favor their uses of public land.
The trick for conservationists who want change is to make that imaginary constituency real, to bring a new set of stakeholders together and find ways to empower them. That may not be the intention of those who gathered in Escalante for the watershed partnership, but it’s what is happening nonetheless—and John Davis is a catalyst.
According to the prevailing belief, growth should always be the bottom line. Trek West expresses an alternate vision that aims instead to translate ecological principles and criteria into actual designs on the ground. That’s not simply a matter of making better maps. Those of us who live within the iconic Western landscapes so treasured by all Americans understand that maps, charts, and spreadsheets do not adequately measure or describe this inspiring and awesome place where we live.
We experience the land sensually. Perhaps that is the ultimate message John Davis is delivering as he treks across the continent’s wild spine. He is making sense of the land one footfall at a time, listening to it, watching it, and feeling it as he goes. So, reconnect landscapes, yes, but also connect head and heart.
Davis’s quest is heroic, but his testimony is simple: when we learn from the land we lean towards wholeness.
Chip Ward, a former librarian and grassroots organizer, is the author of Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon as well as a TomDispatch regular. He wrote this essay while living between a mountain on fire and a desert that is blowing away.
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Copyright 2013 Chip Ward
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