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Now that you and Laura have removed the last strands of Monica’s hair from the Oval Office and redecorated the place, I’d like to suggest the addition of a wall hanging. Call Interior or the Forest Service and have them bring over a big map of America’s public lands. Put it in a place where you can easily study it. Then remind yourself that the guy who won more popular votes than you wanted to restrict access to those millions of acres of mountains and forests.
OK, you know that, and you’re already thinking about how to reverse Gore/Clinton actions on public lands. Do us a favor before you give in to the demands of your party’s members, whose seniority allows them to dominate natural resource policies in the Congress. And think before you follow the lead of Dick Cheney and cronies from your Dad’s regime, who get their kicks from oil drilling and clear-cutting.
Instead, do what another Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, used to do. Shut down the White House for several weeks, head west, hire a good outfitter and ride into glacier country. Exhale that foul Potomac air. Experience in mountain country the joy and exercise that could benefit millions of Americans.
Or you could follow in the footsteps of author Bill Bryson and take a walk in the woods along the Appalachian Trail. Like Bryson, you might quit after a hundred miles, bored with hiking a nonstop corridor of trees and no views. Exactly! Wilderness ain’t as gorgeous as your erstwhile opponent, wooden Al, thinks it is.
The kind of landscape people prefer to view, according to famous Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, is not savage, pristine wilderness at all. Rather, he concludes, people prefer to live on a height, amid trees that have low horizontal branches, looking down on savannah-like terrain, a body of water, and large animals in the distance. Now there’s a job for your Forest Service! Beautify our national forests and open them up. Don’t turn them into a natural museum that shuts people out, the way your election opponent wanted. Remove diseased and dying trees and noxious weeds. Find new uses for small-diameter trees, creating spaces to thwart forest fires, expand wildlife forage, stop erosion, restore streams and shorelines and unlock scenic vistas.
How to get the work done? In the recession you’ve predicted, why not employ a legion of jobless young people, led by residents of financially strapped mountain towns, to build hiking trails and huts? That’s what the Civilian Conservation Corps did during the Great Depression. It would be far cheaper than what the government spends on building free roads for timber corporations.
Tending public land like a national garden isn’t such a nutty idea. Cultivating and growing-a favorite theme of the Bible-will play well in the belt of red-colored states you won in November. Managing the forest in a renewable way is also what Gifford Pinchot had in mind as the first Chief of our national forests, a century ago. One of the guys rumored to be your next Forest Service Chief has a vision of how to accommodate millions more Americans wanting access to public land. He cites the 85-year-old Organic Act establishing the national parks: “To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Not a bad guiding light for your next chief forester.
Recreation and tourism in the national forests-the arena for half of all American skiing and snowboarding-generate far more economic activity than logging, ranching or mining. If you want a model for furnishing more recreation on public land, take a look at the way ski areas lease national forest land. A percentage of the lift-ticket price generates a net profit for the government. Congressmen in your party, who abhor spending on our national parks and forests, should love it.
But dollars are a sick and sliick way to measure the benefits of using public land. To paraphrase conservation visionary Aldo Leopold, economics do not determine all land use; rather land use is guided by “actions and attitudes.” Especially the top guy’s attitudes. Yours. In addition to beautifying and nurturing, consider outdoor recreation as medicine. Direct the Surgeon General and the guys at NIH to measure the health benefits of downhill and cross-country skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, and fishing and hunting the way your Daddy taught you.
You can save billions of dollars that presently go to fight cardiovascular illness. Tell Americans on your weekly radio talks to get their fat butts out of their TV lounge chairs and head outdoors. And while it’s too much to expect you to oppose engine manufacturers, I’ll say it anyway: The government does no favor to America by allowing people to sit on their duffs driving all-terrain gizmos through our pristine public lands.
You need to employ someone (I’ll volunteer) to put in straightforward English the recreation agenda recently completed by the Forest Service. The agency should stress its historic role: to advance multiple uses of the national forests while protecting watersheds, plants and wildlife. Instead, under the aegis of outgoing Chief Mike Dombeck-pressured by wooden Al and Ralph Nader’s Greens, who cost Gore the election-the Forest Service seemed to make protection, not use, its priority.
Warning! You won’t earn brownie points for promoting recreation when the public sees that ski areas on public land have triggered unfortunate, poorly conceived development on adjoining private land. One solution is to steal a popular issue from Gore that he inexplicably failed to exploit against you in the campaign: Give financial and tax incentives to communities wanting to prevent the urban sprawl that’s consuming our land. Ski towns especially need to restore the balance between commerce and open space.
Land use is a large and messy issue, George. Don’t burn political capital, for instance, on costly efforts to reintroduce endangered species as a way of solving complex land-use issues. Rather, encourage intelligent discussion of how to protect the environment amid the inevitable change coming to our mountains: more people, more recreation. You’ll succeed most when local folks buy into your beliefs. Just don’t do it with Gore’s top-down administrative style.What we need is a president (ta-rumm, it could be you!) who will expand the multiple uses of the land bequeathed us by Roosevelt and Pinchot…without desecrating it. You can leave an environmental record that burnishes a presidency not originally supported by most of us.
Columnist Fry, a long-time worrier about what the boom in mountain living means for the environment, has served on the boards of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and The Riverkeeper.