Legislation proposed by N.M. Sen. Tom Udall promotes migration corridors to connect the million square miles of public lands for which Americans hold the deeds of trust. The Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act is hailed in these terms: “the most significant step toward national wildlife conservation in decades.” You could put it that way, but.
The corridor legislation would prod federal resource agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to designate protected migration routes on federal public lands. It would help alleviate wildlife-and-auto collisions that cause an estimated $10 billion a year in damage. So far, there is no visible Republican support in the Senate, but there’s promise here: both parties seem open to a transportation bill that includes generous funding for measures to alleviate wildlife collisions.
In reality, though, these would be praiseworthy single steps upward on a rapidly descending escalator that pulls us toward the ruin of national public lands. They include New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage area, our 12 national monuments, five national forests and 23 wilderness areas. It’s also accelerating animal genocide. Both Democrats and their allies among sane conservatives should think now in terms of a complete reversal, not just baby steps.
Meanwhile, Trump-era minions like Interior Secretary David Bernhardt have barely had time to change clothes since their shifts as industry lobbyists bent on plundering public lands. Now, they are quickly selling off the future of much of that national heritage to corporate drillers, miners, grazers, loggers and developers.
The bullying of land resource agencies by corporate interests and their allies in both political parties was well underway, albeit more quietly, long before Trump’s arrival. Now, the vandalism is swift and comprehensive.
It includes an assault that “takes a wrecking ball to one of our oldest and most effective environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act,” Udall says. Oil and gas leases on federal lands have tripled; an executive order pushes for a 30% spike in logging in national forests; another Trump proposal would obliterate protections for Alaska’s Tongass old-growth rainforest. On a single day, the president hacked hundreds of thousands of acres from national monuments – the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history.
A recent United Nations report concludes “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating … eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” A Cornell University study concludes that, overall, U.S. bird populations have declined by a quarter, about three billion birds across all species, just since 1970. One of the study’s co-authors calls it “a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unraveling.” Princeton ecologist David Wilcove estimates that there are now 14,000 to 35,000 endangered species in the United States – that’s 7% to 18% of our plant and animal species.
And all of that has occurred even before climate disruption bites down hard. The gathering heat means that, in effect, the climates of many national parks and public lands will shift two or three hundred miles south during the coming decades. By 2100, Grand Canyon and Yosemite will be as hot as the Mexican border. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited in the system, will be more like the northern Florida climate we’ve known. Meeting challenges of this scale demands broad-gauge, national park-level protection against industrial despoliation for all classes of federal public lands.
Politics, a useful cliche reminds us, is the art of the possible. But political leadership also means enlarging the boundaries of what is possible. If we want real hope for our publicly owned natural heritage, we’ll have to work much harder to protect it. As the Oberlin ecologist David Orr puts it: “hope is a verb, with its sleeves rolled up.”
Stephen Nash is the author of “Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands Versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change,” published by the University of California Press. He is a visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond.