Public lands in our backyard belong to every American
“Much of what passes for (political) debate consists of irritable ideological gestures.” — E.J. Dionne, Washington Post
I couldn’t help nodding my head in agreement last week with the above statement. Within days of reading Dionne’s words in the Washington Post, two local writers had demonstrated exactly what he was talking about.
One was Rose Pugliese, the former school board candidate who now looks in the mirror every morning and sees a potential Mesa County commissioner. Another was my former neighbor, ex-legislator and one-time gubernatorial hopeful Josh Penry, who also offers his opinions on these pages.
Pugliese repeated all the ideological talking points regarding “our” public lands that the right wing has been parroting since the days of the Sagebrush Rebellion, while she celebrated the demise of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s short-lived attempt to get federal land managers back in the business of considering wilderness along with other characteristics as they manage “our” public lands.
We locals, Pugliese argued in an email letter to The Daily Sentinel, should be the ones deciding the fate of “our” lands, conveniently forgetting that the roughly 150,000 of us here in Mesa County share ownership of those lands with more than 300 million other Americans.
Certainly, we’re more familiar with the many thousands of acres of public lands that make up the vast majority of Mesa County’s 3,300 square miles. We fish and ski in Grand Mesa National Forest, hike trails in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area and the Dominquez-Escalante National Conservation Area, hunt and camp up on the Uncompahgre Plateau and view wild horses in the Book Cliffs.
Not only that, much of our economy depends on those public lands, be it dollars from tourists who visit Colorado National Monument or raft the Dolores down by Gateway, local businesses that service energy development in the surrounding area or livestock producers who graze their sheep and cattle on Piñon Mesa.
But it is irrefutable that those public lands we enjoy and profit from are owned by all Americans, not just those lucky enough to live closest to them. That tension between local desires and broader national concerns is always a thorny challenge in managing “our” public lands.
Pugliese’s former neighbors back in Miami and Long Island own the same percentage of Mesa County’s national forests and BLM lands as she and I do. I suppose, given the “ready, fire, aim” approach Pugliese displays on issues while maneuvering herself into the public eye and even her letter saying “designation of wilderness areas will continue to be made by local governments,” we could forgive her lack of experience and knowledge on public lands issue.
Not so easy to do with Penry.
He ought to know better. After all, he worked for the former congressman for whom the prototype of the modern national conservation area is named, and he also spent some time staffing a congressional subcommittee responsible for matters affecting our public lands.
But, displaying the kind of Orwellian logic that would have you believe black is white and up is down, Josh tells us it’s Ken Salazar who wanted to circumvent Congress and become “Caesar to the American West” by “trying to create millions of acres of de facto wilderness with the stroke of a secretarial pen.”
It was, in fact, Gale Norton who turned legislative intent upside down while she was secretary of the Interior, ignored the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and took wilderness identification off the table in federal land planning processes.
Salazar’s stillborn order only directed federal land managers to resume the kind of work that helps Congress, which alone has the final say, decide whether or not wilderness designations might be appropriate for some public lands.
I can’t help but wonder what Ronald Reagan, who signed more legislation creating wilderness areas than any other president, or Theodore Roosevelt, who showed us how to preserve some of the most special places on our public lands, would think about some of their fellow Republicans today.