By Hal Herring
“For once the battle is lost, once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted…” Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Great Society, Speech delivered 22 May 1964, Ann Arbor, MI
The cold winds blow, and the lakeshore, once so vibrant with life, is silent, the sand unmarked by the prints of bare feet. A strange sadness overtakes the nation and its arts- popular movies, books, television shows- are about disaster, or chronicles of seemingly normal people who spend their lives preparing for an unspecified collapse, hoarding guns, ammunition, bags of rice. Children sit passively, their eyes glued to screens, watching the increasingly boring creations of adults who themselves sit glued to screens at their work, battling depression under fluorescent lights. An epidemic of obesity sweeps both young and old. Seventy-five percent of American youth are unfit for military service, another unenviable and frightening record in a world replete with strife. The wealthiest citizens enjoy unprecedented access to excellent fishing, hunting, and the freedom of open spaces. For the vast majority though, the nation is becoming smaller, more urban dwellers with more traffic between them and the countryside, more electronic distractions, fewer outdoor places to exercise, to build physical skills, or to learn about the natural world. We are being asked a profound question about who we are.
In 2014, Congress will have the opportunity to re-authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and mandate that it be fully stocked to its intended $900 million per year. A quick history: The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, and it was created from a small portion of the royalties produced by oil and gas production on the Outer Continental Shelf. It was allocated for $900 million per year (from total royalties that vary between $5 and $7 billion annually). The money was to be (and was) distributed to the states for projects focusing on everything from public tennis courts to protecting watersheds, national parks, wildlife and fisheries and other natural resources. LWCF would become one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories, a linchpin of a strategy not just to preserve natural beauty and resources, but to build an America where everyone would have access to the best of what our nation offers. The LWCF, like most of the American legacy of conservation, recently became a target of extremists in the US House of Representatives.
At any point in our history, we could have chosen to abandon our dream of a truly exceptional nation, to let the legion of naysayers, cynics, and scoffers prevail. It would have been so easy. When the Gilded Age was roaring along, the small cabal of wealthy speculators setting us up for the Panic of 1873, then the much worse Panic of 1893, which was followed by four long years of dire economic depression, we could have shrugged and assumed that this was just the way it was. The bison were gone, most of the elk, all the passenger pigeons. The plume hunters were exterminating the last of the exotic birds of the Florida wilderness. Judging by the history of the places from which we came- Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, this is what civilization meant- the destruction of the natural world, plutocracy masquerading as governance.
Uniquely, we refused to view this wrongdoing as inevitable or permanent. This was the time of our most intense battles over the rights of labor, farmer’s revolts in the South and the Great Plains, and angry populist political “fusion” movements led by respected men like “The Great Commoner” William Jennings Bryan. Great wildlife conservation movements, almost all of them led by sportsmen, were born. Instead of descending to anarchy, yielding to the temptations of tyranny, or settling for a nation that could not meet its grandest promises, we addressed our troubles at town halls and in Congress. The citizenry demanded solutions and put them to work.
This is our real history, deliberately obscured by the sound and impotent fury of those determined to solve nothing and who thrive on the cotton candy of distraction.
In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt introduced what he called “The Square Deal,” an agreement with the American people based on three principles: natural resource conservation, reining in the increasingly destructive corporate powers, and providing protection for consumers by regulating enterprises such as meatpacking or the rampant drug industries. Roosevelt used the limited power of government to do only what American citizens could not be expected to do for themselves- conserve critical natural resources on the large-scale, break up corporate monopolies that were perverting the free market, and ensure access to safer foods and more effective medicines. He was the first President to create a physical fitness test and standard for the US Marine Corps- ( http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/02/marines-female-fitness-pullups/4294313/) and perhaps the first to truly grasp and cultivate the connection between public lands and public spaces, the physical and mental health of the citizens, and their commitment to – and ability to fight for- the nation. Roosevelt summed up his views more than once, as in these two short sentences delivered to the Deep Waterway Convention, Memphis, Tennessee, in 1907: “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.”
Those words must have seemed like prophecy thirty years later, as the dust blotted out the skies of the mid-West, the highways swarmed with hungry and destitute families, and the souplines in the cities stretched for blocks. It would fall to another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, and to the American people to rebuild the soils, recreate the American economy, and try to prevent such economic and ecological (the two words would be forever linked in the minds of anyone who survived the “Dirty Thirties”) catastrophes from recurring. The years 1933 and 1934 were the lowest points in several dismal measures- lowest point for American wildlife such as whitetail deer, wild turkeys and waterfowl, lowest point in the years of the Depression, the beginning of the worst of the Dust Bowl years that would see 100 million acres of farm and rangeland almost ruined. It was a time for extraordinary remedies, and we found them, created them, put them to work.
The American economic boom touched off by the end of the Second World War came at a tremendous environmental cost to our air and water, but it also empowered a huge middle class to buy boats and shotguns and fishing tackle and hiking boots and take to the mountains, lakes and rivers. The wildlife restorations begun in the 1930’s with such funding sources as the Pittman-Robertson taxes on firearms and ammunition were bearing fruit. Groups like Ducks Unlimited (established in 1937) were flourishing as more sportsmen made the connection between conserved habitat and hunting opportunity. Sporting goods manufacturers were making a connection between their profits and those opportunities. Trout Unlimited was founded in 1959 on the Au Sable River in Michigan, by fishermen who knew they’d have to act on their own behalf to preserve the sport they loved and the beautiful waters that made it possible.
During the 1950’s and 60’s an outdoors people was discovering its outdoors on a grand scale. The automobile provided the mobility to travel to the public lands, to visit the National Parks, to fish and hunt and travel. It was in essence, a renaissance – the frontier was long gone, but many of the traditions born there had survived, including fishing, hunting, camping, and the simple idea that being outside, active and healthy, was an essential part of American freedom.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, was a critical and pragmatic part of this renaissance. Like our early wildlife conservation laws, or the setting aside of public lands and creation of National Parks, LWCF was a pioneering and visionary act. In an address to Congress on February 8, 1965, President Johnson said, "Our conservation must be not just the classic conservation of protection and development, but a creative conservation of restoration and innovation. Its concern is not with nature alone, but with the total relation between man and the world around him. Its object is not just man's welfare but the dignity of man's spirit."
An engaged citizenry, hunting and fishing public lands, running beside urban rivers on parklands bought with LWCF money, exploring swamps and mountain trails, witnessed firsthand the challenges posed by pollution and the potential pitfalls of a nation where too much land is off limits to the public. It was a classic formula for positive change - freedom fosters freedom. People who know what is at stake, who have been exposed to natural beauty and the healthy rigors of outdoor experience, will always demand that these resources and opportunities be protected. Beginning about five years after the LWCF was created, the citizenry demanded, and got, a series of some of the world’s strongest federal environmental laws. From the Clean Air Act of 1970 through the Superfund Act of 1980, the US began to slowly reverse the worst of the air and water pollution in our country.
The legislation worked so well that many people today seem to have no idea what it is, or what it was created to address. Americans born at the tail end of the Baby Boom and after grew up with cleaner air and water than their parents experienced. They had more outdoor recreational opportunities. This was accomplished even with the tremendous surge in US population- from 191 million people in 1964 to 317.4 million today.
Unlike most of that world, we turn on the tap in our homes and drink water that is safe. Air quality is still good in most regions. We swim in our rivers, eat fish from lakes and streams. 40 million of us hunt and fish. Teenagers in isolated rural communities play tennis on public courts, or learn to swim in public pools, built with LWCF money in the 1980’s. In urban Los Angeles, a future soccer star is learning to kick a ball downfield, in a park paid for by the LWCF. In a small Montana town, there’s a thriving fishing tackle shop and guide service that would not exist without the fishing access sites bought with LWCF money. (for a list of LWCF projects across the US- http://www.lwcfcoalition.org/ )
Americans have come to view such opportunities as their birthright, and to expect that they will always be there for us and our children.
But there is no chance that these extraordinary luxuries can continue without the active involvement of the citizens who enjoy them. At a time when our population is expected to reach anywhere from 450- 500 million by 2050, the environmental laws, and programs like the LWCF, are under siege by the minions of a new breed of would-be plutocrats.
These same minions lay siege to what has become a powerhouse outdoor recreation industry: 6.1 million jobs, $646 billion in outdoor recreation spending each year, $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue, and $39.7 billion in state/local tax revenue. http://www.outdoorindustry.org/pdf/OIA_OutdoorRecEconomyReport2012.pdf . They lay siege to a basic American idea, best said by Theodore Roosevelt in Chicago, 1912: "This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in."
It has been said that America is the only nation where educated men and women who would not for one week let their children breathe the air of Beijing or drink the water of Mumbai, lobby relentlessly to get rid of the very laws that prevent such pollution from being the norm here. There are tens of millions of Americans who enjoy clean air, water, the LWCF-funded parks and public lands and the world’s best public hunting and fishing and seem to have no idea why they have these things, when so much of the rest of the world does not. That is exactly why, in July of 2013, the US. House of Representatives Interior Appropriations Subcommittee felt that there would be no uproar from the public when they voted to zero out the budgets for:
Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)
Forest Legacy (FLP)
North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA)
Cooperative Endangered Species Program (Section 6) land acquisition
State and Tribal Wildlife Grants (SWG)
Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program
Landscape Conservation Cooperatives
(The House bill: http://appropriations.house.gov/uploadedfiles/bills-113hr-sc-ap-fy2014-interior-subcommitteedraft.pdf )
That same obliviousness among most citizens is why the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been raided, year after year by unscrupulous elected representatives, so that in most years, even as offshore production revenues soared and coffers were full, over 70% of the LWCF has been stolen. Those who took these funds (to date, $17 billion has been taken) were sure that the citizens would never notice- it’s difficult, after all, to prove a negative, the sick children who would have been well had they had a park to play in, the floods and water pollution that occurred because there was no money to purchase greenbelts along the urban creeks, the sporting goods that were never sold to the people who never had a place to use them. The inmate who could have been a fisheries biologist or the military career that never happened because the teenager did not know how to swim and could not run a mile. http://cdn.missionreadiness.org/MR_Too_Fat_to_Fight-1.pdf
While too many of us – especially the hunters and fishermen with the most at stake- remain unaware, there is a growing constituency of Americans who understand the importance of the LWCF. Among them, Montana Senator Max Baucus (recently appointed US ambassador to China) and the 38 of his colleagues who so-sponsored Senate 338, the bill that will reauthorize LWCF, mandate that it be funded to its full $900 million extent and make sure those funds are never again looted. Among those colleagues is Montana Senator Jon Tester, who has long been a champion of the LWCF, seen here with Randy Newberg, the host of the sportsmen’s show Own your Own Adventures, in one of the best short discussions of this issue:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3deF60icto&feature=share Senator Tester is also sponsoring a bill called the Making Public Lands Public Act (S.901), that would allow 1.5% of a re-authorized LWCF to be used to create access to what a recent study shows is over 4 million acres of public land that is currently off limits due to being blocked by private land, scattered across six Western states. http://westernpriorities.org/2013/11/25/new-report-landlocked-measuring-public-land-access-in-the-west/
One of the most powerful advocates is the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, comprised of nearly one thousand conservation groups, businesses and sportsmen’s groups, ranging from the Annapolis Bicycle Racing Team to the World Wildlife Fund and beyond. http://www.lwcfcoalition.org/about-us.html
Among those diverse interests is LWCF Coalition member and veteran Mark Starr, Program Director of the Veteran’s Voice. For Starr, support of the LWCF is part of a very personal mission: “We get veterans outdoors and expose them to the healing qualities of nature, and we work to protect the natural landscapes that we use and love. This is as much an urban issue as it is anything else. I live in the concrete bunker of Los Angeles, and LWCF has paid for ball fields, swimming pools, parks, none of which would be available to the people here without that funding. We bring the issue of the LWCF to the table every single time we meet with lawmakers.” In a recent blog post, Starr wrote about the difficulty so many soldiers have in readjusting to civilian life, “Many veterans find healing during this transition by spending time in the outdoors fishing, hiking, hunting and camping with family and friends. That's why it's personally important for me and many veterans that we protect public lands in our state and our nation. These are the lands that we fought to defend. They represent the great majesty of our country and the boundless opportunity of the American dream.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-starr/
Bill Sells, of the Maryland-based trade group the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, says that the debate over healthcare has broadened the support and understanding of the need for the LWCF, in ways that should have been obvious, but were not. “What the debate brought to light was the true cost of a sedentary nation, paying for these entirely preventable illnesses, for people’s entire lives. No nation can afford that. And we know that the best way to address these costs is for people to just be active. That’s how we get healthier.” To be active, Sells says, people need access to open spaces and public lands and outdoor infrastructure, “and the LWCF is a major component of that. That was the intention behind the LWCF in the beginning, and we need it more than ever now.”
We have always faced extraordinary questions. Consistently, we have answered them with extraordinary engagement. Not for us, we have said, the concrete slums crowded with hungry children, the rivers awash with trash, the abandonment of hunting and fishing and its attendant freedoms and knowledge of the true value of the earth. Not for us, extremism, plutocracy, stupidity, illness. Societal and economic collapse makes excellent fodder for movies and books, but it’s a poor place to track elk or teach children to climb trees and swim rivers. We know the answers to the questions this time, too: healthy public lands and spaces, clean air, water and wildlife and fish, room to explore and to learn the nature of the gifts we’ve been given. If we are as engaged as those Americans who came before us, we’ll meet our challenges as they met theirs.