mission accomplished – Bush has undone a century of progress by the US’s environmental protection movement


By By Kaleem Omar


President George W. Bush isn’t only hated by people in countries around the world opposed to the US’s invasion, occupation and destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq; he is also hated by many people in his own country opposed to his anti-environmental protection policies. Among other things, those policies have opened up millions of acres of America’s protected national wildlife refuges to oil and gas drilling operations by big US energy companies – putting the pristine wilderness at risk.A century ago, US President Teddy Roosevelt gave Americans the bountiful and enlightened National Wildlife Refuge System – the world’s first such system and one of America’s glories.There are national wildlife refuges in every American state, important centres for the preservation of a sense of wildness in each place. In addition, these refuges have served as models for states like New York, which have created their own supplemental patchwork of refuges large and small.

As much as anything, the refuge safety net has created a long-standing public policy for establishing wildlife sanctuaries, and the tacit understanding that without them, the wilderness is doomed.

As New York State’s Albany Times-Union newspaper noted, “For a century, a critical underpinning of America’s view of wilderness has been that we can’t live without it. It’s our heritage. National forests and parks have steadily grown in numbers and size, and public appreciation.”

Americans have consistently recognised that significant pieces of their natural environment need to be set aside. It hasn’t been a Republican agenda or a Democratic one; it’s been a remarkably bipartisan vision.

Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the far-reaching Wilderness Act forty-five years ago. Republican President Richard M. Nixon gave the country the Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act; and Republican Ronald Reagan signed more wilderness protection legislation than any other president.

But what the Bush administration has been attempting seems to be nothing less than total reversal of a century of environmental flow in the United States. As the Albany Times-Union noted, “At every turn, the Bush administration is thumbing its nose at every president who’s gone before, back to Teddy Roosevelt.”

It is staggering how much environmental progress President George W. Bush is trying to undo. There is a cumulative sense over the last seven years of a level of greed and exploitation encouraged by the White House that at some points of America’s history would have been the stuff of impeachment.

Mining, lumbering, oil interests and developers in general have never had it so good on public lands, much of which were set aside explicitly or in the spirit of protecting the wilderness. “Sadly, public reaction has been surprisingly muted,” the Albany Times-Union noted.

One of the main reasons for this muted reaction, of course, has been the climate of fear created by the Bush administration as it has gone about pursuing its so-called “war against terrorism.” Dire warnings of imminent terrorist attacks continue to emanate from administration officials on an almost weekly basis. The result is a population so traumatised and apprehensive about what the future holds for them that environmental concerns have been pushed on to the backburner.

Known for its close links to US energy companies and other big business interest groups, the Bush administration seems more interested in giving its business cronies the opportunity to line their pockets by allowing them to exploit the natural resources of public lands and less interested in preserving the wilderness.

The administration has already allowed energy companies to drill for oil in some protected sections of the Alaska wilderness and plans are afoot to allow similar operations in other western states.

The topper has to be an attempt to export the Bush brand of exploitation abroad and turn on its head the Endangered Species Act.

As the Albany Times-Union noted, “Under a proposal being floated by the administration, trophy hunters, circuses and the pet industry would be permitted to kill, capture or legally import certain desired species, many of which are at the door of extinction.”

The sick premise being used by the Bush administration to justify the move is that poor countries can use the money raised by selling some of their endangered wildlife to support badly needed conservation efforts for the others.

The most reprehensible part of this plan is that only foreign endangered species would be involved: trophy hunting for rare beasts, exporting Asian elephants for US circuses and zoos, resuming a partial African ivory trade (internationally banned since the early 1980s), and encouraging shadowy collectors to retrieve rare birds from the Amazon rain forest.

American endangered species are not part of the proposal, probably because the hue and cry that would result nationally would deafen a few ears in Washington.

Worldwide, and especially in poorer countries, the black market trade in endangered species is a huge problem, tying up all kinds of international policing resources. But at least at present there’s something of a cap on the illegal activity.

With the Bush proposal, however, we may as well put up billboards telling poachers they now have a place in line behind lumbering, mining and oil. And please, after you’ve shot the last elephant, turn out the lights.

American national parks are not merely places of spectacular scenic features and curiosities. This sounds like a strange statement in the face of the advertised lure of wonders like the geysers of Yellowstone, the incredible blue of Oregon’s Crater Lake (which I had the good fortune to see in the summer of 1989), the unrivalled picture of the Grand Canyon, and the waterfalls of the Yosemite with their legends of Yosemite Sam and his “hoard of King Solomon’s gold,” of all things.

But nearly all the national parks, and many of the wilderness areas, would justify their existence even if they did not possess so great a scenic merit. The scenery is inspiring, unforgettable; but the meaning goes deeper.

When the Yellowstone National Park was established through an Act of Congress in 1872, it was as “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Whatever Congress meant by those words, it occurred naturally to the early exploration parties that the wonders of the region were no ordinary creation of nature – that the volcanic phenomena especially were of world significance; and that consequently any private interests that could gain ownership would reap large profits.

In the act of Congress that set up the National Park Service, some forty-five years afterward, the field of purpose was much widened. The words of the act should be well remembered, for the National Park System operates today under that organic law, which orders the conservation of “the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life” in the national parks, and the provision “for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

This is what the national parks are for – not a part, but the whole of the stated purpose. This, with the implication of policies and methods to achieve the stated ends, is the full meaning of the national parks. It is no longer “conservation.” It is preservation. Or it may be called conservation in another and newer sense: the conserving of resources that are not to be expressed in terms of money, but embrace the moral, spiritual, and educational welfare of the people and add to the joy of their living.

Included in the National Park System are twenty-eight areas designated as national parks, and eighty-six areas called national monuments. In addition, there are about sixty preserved places, mostly of small extent, which fall into various categories, according to the historical reasons for which they were set aside. Finally, there are three national parkways and the integrated group known as the National Capital Parks.

In 1898, the great American naturalist John Muir wrote: “Thousands of nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

With every passing year, the truth of that statement in emphasised. But it is that very vision of Muir and Teddy Roosevelt that the Bush administration is seeking to undo. To Bush and his business cronies, the wilderness is not a necessity, not a fountain of life; it is a resource to be exploited for money.


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