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Preserving American Treasures

A recent trip to Southern California brought me within an hour’s drive of the famed Joshua Tree National Park, a 1,235 square-mile tract of land overseen by the U.S. National Park Service. The park is shockingly beautiful when viewed by one who has lived her entire life in New England. It contains unusual, even unique features of desert life, and a trip in March, as mine was, offers a heady display of cacti flowering. I found myself deeply moved by the spiritual space that a pristine piece of wilderness creates.

The park has many interesting features, one of which is that it exists because a woman, Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, advocated for the preservation of desert spaces. In fact, the American people also have her to thank for the protection of Death Valley and the Anzo-Borrego Desert. I often find that, when I stumble upon a really special place, I hear the same story: one person—often one who has no ancillary personal benefit from acting—becomes passionate about protecting a small corner of the universe, and through that passion, is successful in preserving a location full of marvel for generations to come. And always, government plays a vital role.

And so it was with a great deal of surprise that I watched the news unfold in January 2016. In a spot I’d never heard of, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a group of armed individuals gathered to argue that this land, which belongs to all citizens, through our national park system, ought to be turned over to a handful of ranchers. I immediately felt struck by this reversal of the well-known story of preservation and became curious about Malheur’s founding. It turns out that during the 1880s many species of American birds were being decimated because their feathers were used on hats. Ornithologists were alarmed, and in a few short years George Bird Grinnell founded the Audubon Society and appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside lands for the preservation of breeding grounds for native birds. Malheur was one of these, as it is an important breeding area, especially for the Greater Sandhill Crane.

So what got these individuals so riled up? I could understand an argument that government-owned property had crowded out ranchers and that some of it ought to be freed up. But in fact, that is already the case. The Bureau of Land Management has 155 million acres of land set aside for livestock grazing. They award leases for ten years at a time, and the cost to the rancher is $2.11 for enough land to keep a cow and her calf alive for a year. Meanwhile, the BLM spends $79.9 million to keep the land and water healthy enough for grazing. That sort of subsidy to cattle ranchers is pretty impressive. 

No, this felt like a land grab – a group of selfish people who wanted to take from the many and give to the few. For the local Burns Paiute tribe, it was a painful reminder of an earlier land grab. National parks are a treasure for all who walk through them. Each is unique and each is under pressure. Would we even have a clue as to what beaches once looked like if we did not have the great national preserves like the Anastasia State Park near St. Augustine, FL or the Cape Cod National Seashore? With the pressures for development in Southern California, would a single Joshua tree even still survive, let alone a whole park of them?

I’ve never fallen into the anti-government category; anarchy doesn’t much appeal to me. But I rarely appreciate government as much as I do when I find myself walking through protected lands. I hope there isn’t any more silliness about removing the parks from federal oversight. As fewer and fewer Americans live in close proximity to pristine places, our national parks become more of a treasure, not less. The National Park Service is turning 100 years old this year. Let’s use this as a chance to celebrate what wilderness brings to us and recall that the few, working together, have preserved many a special spot in this great land of ours.