ArticlesNewsTent Bound

When They Want to Take Away Wilderness

Kayaks on a remote beach.

On PaddlingLight, I try to steer clear of politics, but one of PaddlingLight’s missions is to increase wilderness protection so I have to stick my toes into it now and then. Recently, we had some alarming numbers on wilderness participation rates, and with an increasingly anti-environmental U.S. congress, which according to some numbers is the most anti-environmental congress in the existence of the United States — as of September 2011 they made 125 votes against the environment and 33 votes to undermine protection for public lands and coasts — I feel like it’s my duty as a paddler, a blogger and a lover of wilderness to speak out. Especially now with an election coming up in the U.S.

On February 25, 2012, Rep. Cliff Steans (Republican-FL) said at a town hall meeting that “we don’t need any more national parks in this country” and that we need to “actually sell off some of our national parks.” Think about that for a second. An elected official in the majority party actually coming out and saying that America needs to sell off one of its crowning achievements — national parks. I’m not going to do a big argument here about why America’s national parks are one of the country’s best ideas, instead I’ll refer you to Ken Burn’s six-part, must see documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The basic premise is (emphasis mine):

America’s national parks are a treasure house of nature’s superlatives – 84 million acres of the most stunning landscapes anyone has ever seen. They became the last refuge for magnificent species of animals that otherwise would have vanished forever; today, they remain a refuge for human beings seeking to replenish their spirit.

The national parks embody a radical idea, as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence, born in the United States nearly a century after its creation. It is a truly democratic idea, that the magnificent natural wonders of the land should be available not to a privileged few, but to everyone.

The idea has been constantly debated, constantly tested and is constantly evolving, ultimately embracing places that also preserve the nation’s first principles, its highest aspirations, its greatest sacrifices – even reminders of its most shameful mistakes. Most of all, the story of the national parks is the story of people from every conceivable background who were willing to devote themselves to saving a portion of the land they loved. (via PBS)

And one more quote:

By the 1860s, the country’s most famous natural landmark, Niagara Falls, had already been nearly ruined. Every overlook was owned by a private landowner charging a fee. If nothing was done, Yosemite was sure to end up the same way.

public land in Grand MaraisAnd that’s exactly right. If we sell off our national parks, they will become developed and access will become limited to the privileged few — as Occupy Wall Street movement would say, “the 1%,” and that’s not me and I’d guess it’s not you. In my area, any private land close to the BWCA is developed with million dollar houses. If the entire area wasn’t protected or if we sold it off, the BWCA would fill up with houses — look at the Twin Lakes Canoe Route as an example. If we remove public lands from wilderness protection, they will get developed. Here’s a recent quote from my state Representative David Dill (Democrat-Farmer-Labor-Crane Lake), whose district includes the BWCA, America’s most used Wilderness Area:

We should mine, log and lease the hell out of that land.

This is a guy supposedly on the “right” side of environmental issues because he’s a Democrat, but he wants to “mine, log and lease the hell out of” federal land exchanged for state land inside the BWCA, which is protected from mining, logging and leasing, instead of approaching it in an environmentally conscious direction with an eye on future generations. I had an email conversation with him about this issue and how it relates to sustainable tourism which is what drives the economy of the BWCA.

After I asked if he said those things, he wrote:

That is correct.  The Minnesota Constitution states, Article 11, Section 8 that the school trust lands are to generate revenue for public education, K-12 and Higher Ed. To do otherwise would be a violation of my oath of office. I do not know how my thoughts or statements could disrespect the idea that I have not supported tourism on the North Shore, or for that matter anywhere else in the legislative district or state. Your own county is attempting to trade their lands in the BWCA for lands outside the BWCA. Lake County has accomplished this and they will be lumbering, possibly mining those lands and issuing leases.

When a politician has to resort to quoting the constitution, the hair stands up on the back of my neck, because it usually means that they’ll follow the quote with a bunch of bullshit. In this case, Dill is shortsighted because he doesn’t consider the future K-12 and Higher Ed kids that will come 100 or 200 years from now. With sulfide mining, which is what he’s talking about, there will be about 20 years of profits and then 100s of years of clean up.

I wrote back:

There’s a difference between mining, logging, leasing “the hell out of that land” and using it in a sustainable way with a conservationist approach. What you’ve said by stating the way you did is, we should throw everything to the wind to make money off of the land. Combine that with your support for sulfide mining, which has a 100% track record of polluting, and we start to see where your priorities are, despite some support for tourism. Your support for mining that will pollute in Minnesota just as it has everywhere else in the world puts into jeopardy our sustainable, long-term tourism business in exchange short-term mining jobs that will evaporate in a decade or two leaving pollution that the state will need to fix in its wake. And, please, don’t give me the argument that we need the metals because we all use electronics, because if you take that argument to its logical conclusion, we would have to mine the deposits in the BWCA. There are some places in the world that aren’t worth sacrificing and northern Minnesota and the BWCA is one of them. So, if you look at the overall picture, you’re willing to throw tourism under the bus.

See more about sulfide mining in northern Minnesota.

This isn’t the first time that congressmen have talked about selling off our public lands. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Republican-UT) proposed selling off 3.3 million acres of land to try to balance the federal budget and when you think about how they want to preserve the subsidies we give to industries, such as oil, that don’t need it, you can see that some of the congressmen really could care less about common folks. Chaffetz had over half a million dollars of wealth as of 2011. Using a recently popular analogy where Republicans compare the U.S. Federal budget to a family budget, selling 3.3 million acres of land to balance the budget is like selling off your backyard to keep giving away money to the local gas station because you think they should take more of your cash.

It isn’t limited to a few reactionary right-wingers, it goes right to the top of the Republican party. The current front runners in the fight for the Republican nomination have has made it known that they he would eliminate public lands. Scott Keys writes:

Republican presidential candidates have also recently been confused about the tangible and intangible values of our national parks and public lands.  Mitt Romney told the Reno Gazette-Journal that he doesn’t know “what the purpose is” of public lands, Rick Santorum told Idahoans that public lands should go “back to the hands” of the private sector, and Ron Paul advocated for public lands to be turned over to the states.

Since then:

Governor Romney stated earlier this year that he did not understand the “purpose” of public lands. But since that time he has released an energy plan that defines their purpose as supporting the oil and gas industry.  The plan would give states control of energy development decisions on Public Lands, which would threaten 30 national park units including the Everglades and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Mount RushmoreIn 1916, President Theodore Roosevelt gave a preemptive rebuttal to short-sighted politicians such as Steans, Dill, Chaffetz, Romney, Santorum, Paul and others of the same ilk:

Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying the ‘the game belongs to the people.’ So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.

Roosevelt also said:

There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.

Now, let imagine a future were these politicians follow through with their plans and our public lands are sold off. Access becomes restricted, wealthy home owners don’t want to see paddlers on their lakes or crossing their streams and soon access gets stopped. You can’t paddle the river you love or the lake you went to as a kid. You don’t have to imagine that, because private land owners are already trying to restrict historic routes in such places as the Adirondacks. With legislatures beholden to the wealthy few, access will disappear along with public lands.

Lake Superior near HovlandIt’s no longer enough to write to your congressmen, because their opinions are set in stone before they start running for office and there is no way to change them — consider the example of the debt ceiling fight in 2011; the extremists would have rather shut down the United States and defaulted on our debt than come to a compromise over what in every year past was a simple routine vote. The only thing you can do now is vote against these people to keep them out of congress.

In the coming year, I urge you as a paddler to examine your views on parks, wilderness areas, wild areas and public lands, and if you find that they are important for yourself, for the generations to come 100 years from now, then vote for the candidate that will protect public spaces and strengthen those protections.

The price of wilderness protection is eternal vigilance.

UPDATE (3/21/2014): The U.S. House of Representatives under right-wing extremist pressure is set to vote on the “No More National Parks” bill in response to President Obama lawfully protecting California’s Coast near Point Arena as a new national monument. The new “No More National Parks” law would overturn a “108 year-old law that presidents of both parties have used to protect iconic American places, including the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, and Arches National Park.”

UPDATE: In Utah, the extremist governor is demanding that the U.S. turn over 30 million acres of federal land including the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. “Proponents argue there are trillions of dollars of coal to be mined within the monument.”

After I wrote this, I heard about Florida trying to sell off 30+ state parks. And Mike Bielski wrote on Facebook, “The governor of Ohio gave petroleum companies the right to “frack” inside any of the state’s parks. In Michigan, the governor has floated the idea of selling off state parks to private companies. Through the “Emergency Financial Manager” law that allows the governor to appoint a dictator with complete power over everything including duly elected officials when his office deems a city, town, village, county, township, or school district in financial distress, city parks of considerable value on the shore of Lake Michigan have been sold off to private developers in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Keep in mind that, like everything else objectionable and onerous lately, the radical agenda is being pushed at the state level first.” 

This agenda is deep and extremely local. It’s best to know the positions on wilderness and parks of your city council members, county commissioners and state reps. We have to stop this everywhere.

UPDATE: In 2013, failed Vice President candidate Paul Ryan introduced a Republican budget that calls for the privatization of federal lands.

The only way to save wilderness and public lands is to vote them out of power!

Subscribe! Get PaddlingLight in your inbox. Enter your email address:


  • Very well written. Obviously you know the subject. We all have to work together for wildlife preservation and also protect our waters. Thanks to work so hard on your side-)

  • Either in the US, or here in Canada the entity we know as wilderness is voiceless as we drive closer to the crossroads of want and need vs. what is left of this planet to give. Our first, best mission as people walking the Earth is to protect it from ourselves.

  • I read your blog and I found it interesting! Its is really important that we have a program to protect our environment. We should really do that because not only our environment will be affected but also many people, am I right?

  • Well written, Bryan. I really like that quote from Roosevelt, it says so eloquently why we need to protect what we have, and respect the world we live in.
    Bryan S.

  • I totally agree that our wild lands need to be preserved and that writing your congressman is no longer enough. The problem in voting, though, seems to be that both parties are looking to throw the environment “under the bus”. The only difference between the parties seems to be that the Republicans are usually more up front about it and most Democrats try to pretend that they are pro-environment while they accept huge campaign contributions from anti-wilderness lobbies. Our current president (Democrat) is moving ahead with opening the area just offshore of ANWR to oil drilling. It makes it pretty hard to use your vote as a way to protect wilderness.

  • Well said Bryan! The shortsightedness of today’s politicians (and sadly much of the populace) is truly alarming.

  • […] travel. A blog from a (real) photographer and an engaged writer. I loved reading his article on: When they want to take away wilderness published last March. Very well researched! Also posts on reviews, stories, and covers both kayak […]

  • […] something occurs that affects an integral part of the wilderness exploration experience, such as When They Want to Take Away Wilderness (read it before you vote this year), I feel like I need to write something to send out to all the […]

Comments are closed.