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Fight in the Senate: A battle over Federal public lands

by FRANCES LAMBERTS

A nationally syndicated columnist recently commented, in the Johnson City Press on February 28, on the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and public sentiment surrounding the issues involved.
He noted the occupants’ lack of support from ranchers and the local community as Americans, by the millions, “enjoy hiking, hunting and bird watching.” Choice of a bird sanctuary to make a stand against public-lands resources was a bad idea, therefore, he suggested.
If he is right regarding Americans’ love for their public lands, then recent actions in the GOP dominated Congress would seem to be wrong. The US Senate in 2015 sought to do away with the President’s authority, under the 1906 Antiquities law, to designate new National Monuments if unprotected, uniquely important historical, cultural, or scientifically important lands, structures or resources, are threatened.
An example of such is the Grand Canyon, first protected by Theodore Roosevelt as National Monument until established, later, as a national park by the Congress.
Almost all presidents since Roosevelt, of both parties, have made use of the Antiquities law, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Fortunately, the Senate’s attempt to prohibit presidents’ future use of this law failed.
Another measure – passed and included in the Senate’s FY16 budget resolution – would authorize disposal of most federal lands, with exception of national parks, preserves, and the existing monuments. The national forests, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and other federal lands would be open to transfer or sale to state or local governments, after review by Congress, with option of sell-off to private interests.
It could mean loss of protections for water, timber, wildlife and other biological resources, as of use accessibility to all citizens, for which they were established in the first place. In Tennessee, although Great Smoky Mountains National Park would remain accessible for general public use, this could become reduced or unavailable in the National Wildlife Refuge in Henry County, or Cherokee National Forest, here.
This federal-lands disposal is a bad idea, both for environmental conservation and for the “essential democracy” notion which public ownership of these lands represents. As T. Roosevelt said, it potentially means that preservation for enjoyment “of the scenery, of the forests, of the wilderness life and the wilderness game for the people as a whole” could become “confined to the very rich” who have the means to acquire and “control private reserves.”
A blogger opposed to the lands-transfer action by the Senate quoted President Ronald Reagan’s similarly memorable words. “The preservation of parks, wilderness and wildlife also aided liberty,” Reagan told the Congress, “by keeping alive the 19th century sense of adventure and awe with which our forefathers greeted the American West.” The nearly universal appreciation of these preserved landscapes in our own time, through outdoor recreation, “is a modern expression of our freedom and leisure to enjoy the wonderful life that generations past have built for us.”
It is gratifying to see Tennessee’s Senator Lamar Alexander voting to uphold, in both measures, public use of federal lands, disappointing that Senator Corker did not.