Ah, (Alaska and Utah) Wilderness!

We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there.  I may never in my life get to Alaska,...but I am grateful that it is there.  We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope
                                                     Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

This morning I decided to forego my usual breakfast banquet of a stale donut with coffee and head into town for a more substantial repast, an uplink to the Internet, and a chance to ask a question or two about things I'd seen.  

On my way into town I heard part of a BBC broadcast focused on the perennial efforts of the current administration in Washington to open up the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and production.  The panel comprised the expected mix: a Sierra Club representative, an advocate of drilling, and a third party presumed to occupy the middle ground.

There wasn't anything particularly new about the interchange, which was civil, although vigorous on both sides.  What struck me, as always, was the impassioned view of the industry advocate that we must begin exploitation in Alaska now because conservation efforts require too much time to take effect — an argument I have heard for so long that such efforts could easily have taken hold many times over ever since first this rationale was raised.

I was also struck by the fact that no one mentioned the amount of time it would take to explore, extract, and build transshipment facilities (pipelines?  A port terminal with the capacity to store hundreds of millions of gallons of crude until ships can collect it during ice-out in summer?)  Could actually bringing Alaskan Wildlife Refuge oil into the Lower Forty Eight conceivably take less than a decade?


I did learn one new bit of data as I drove through the Escalante Monument, one of the least visited of public Federal properties: the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge is the only portion of northern Alaska that is off limits to oil and mineral exploitation — and comprises only 5% of that vast area.  And now that last 5% is at risk.

Before the program was over, I arrived at my destination, and sat down at the type of pleasant, small-town eatery you might expect for a quiet breakfast.  That wasn’t in the cards, though, as almost immediately three people sat down beside me.  Over the next half hour, one of them did all the talking, and loudly enough that I had no choice but to hear the important statements that he liberally shared.  His topic, as it happens, was the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge, but it was clear that his information came from Rush Limbaugh (or similar) rather than the BBC.


Most of his factual statements began with “The simple fact is…”  The fundamental truths he propounded included statements such these: “The simple fact is that there has been no oil exploration in the United States in 30 years,” and “The simple fact is that there hasn’t been a single new refinery built in the United States since 1980,” and again, “The environmentalists are killing this country.”  I don’t have access to the relevant data right now, but it’s my bet that neither of the first two statements is a fact, although all three statements certainly represent simplistic attempts to deal with complex problems.


To me, the decision not to drill is a simple one.  Opening new oil fields encourages dependency on oil rather than weans us from it.  And despite the promises of industry to limit ecological impacts, I expect that once the development nose is under the ecological tent, more development, more roads, more types of exploitation — in short, more impact, would follow. 


Alaska, like Utah (and all other western states), has a local economy and culture that is dependent on the use of renewable and the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources.  Alaskans enjoy the special bounty of a reverse tax — rather than pay in to the government, the government pays them an annual stipend, simply for living there — their share of the state taxes levied on the oil extracted from their state.  Many jobs, both direct (drilling and maintenance), as well as indirect (shipping, services, and so on), are also provided by the oilfields. With taxes from Prudhoe Bay down and many workers laid off, Alaskans are in something of a state of shock.


In the Escalante, the equivalent resource is what little grazing fodder will grow in this arid land.  The west is not, after all, a perfect place to raise cattle or sheep — far from it.  It’s just that the meager browse that grows here is the only nearly-universal renewable throughout the area.  IN some areas, there is adequate water to irrigate and grow high value locally needed crops like alfalfa, and in others there is timber to be harvested or minerals to be extracted.   But for vast areas, such as the Escalante, there are no commercially useful trees or minerals.  And that largely leaves only ranching, tourism, and service jobs to sustain the lives of those that were born here and want to stay.


Here, as elsewhere, the livelihoods of a large percentage of the inhabitants have been based on ranching for generations.  In fact, the identity of entire states is in significant part based upon that way of life.  Not surprisingly, those that live on the land do not take kindly when folk back east try to tell them what they can and can’t do on their own land — or even on the public lands owned by everyone (like you and me) that ranching families have controlled under Federal leases for many decades.  Would you?


There are a variety of ways that a National Monument can be created.  In the case of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, President Clinton utilized the presidential powers granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorizes the President:


[I]n his discretion, to declare  by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situation upon the lands owned or are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.


The Act goes farther, and permits the government to take private land as well.


When the Escalante was set aside, some understandably questioned whether 1.7 million acres could reasonably be judged to be the “smallest area compatible with the care and management of the objects to be protected.” Anticipating that objection, the proclamation recites a long list of paleontological, archeological, geologic and other features worthy of preservation.  In each of the four visitor centers that surround the Monument, and in all of the literature that you find there, the “scientific significance” of the terrain is repeatedly emphasized, and the statement is often made that scientists of many stripes from “all over the world” visit the Monument to gain data.


The primary reason (and legal rationale) for setting aside the Monument then is, “protecting the objects identified” in the Proclamation.  As noted in the first chapter of the Management Plan created in accordance with the Presidential mandate, “All other considerations are secondary to that edict.” 


Ah, but life is not so simple.  At the time that the Monument was set aside, almost 100% of what would become the Monument was already subject to a total of 76 grazing leases (called “allotments).  Regardless of the fact that the total number of ranchers and their families holding these allotments might be small, sentiment in the west against Federal takings is high, and it was therefore not likely local ranchers would suddenly be divested of their livelihoods.


Rather, the proclamation provides as follows:


Nothing in the proclamation shall be deemed to affect existing permits or leases for, or levels of, livestock grazing on Federal lands within the monument; existing grazing uses shall continue to be governed by applicable laws and regulations other than this proclamation.


Similarly, hunting and fishing remain subject to the laws and regulations of Utah.


The result is that the entire park, but for some small outlying portions, is subject to the profound impacts of grazing on arid lands:  the already-accomplished eradication of some plant species, the resulting effects on the animal species that depended on those plants, the acceleration of erosion, the introduction and spread of non-native plant species, and so on.  The Management Plan seeks to mediate the effects that grazing and other permitted uses may have on flora, fauna, the terrain, water quality and so on.  The goal is to use available browse as a renewable resource without degrading the overall environment.  The Management Plan lays out detailed ways of doing so, based upon allootment by allotment reviews of actual conditions on the ground.  Given sufficient attention and agreement between ranchers and those that monitor the land, over-all preservation of the landscape is technically feasible. 

That’s the ideal, and with good will on all sides, that’s what will happen.  If you walk the Monument, though, you can see areas where it is working far better than others.  Some areas look very healthy, while others have very sparse cover, and are eroding heavilty.  In an ideal world, those areas would be closed and allowed to recover, with assistance through intervention.  But what does the rancher live on while this is happening?

Rightly, there are also rules that relate to recreational use, since overuse by hikers is just as harmful as overgrazing by cattle.  Still, there is a significant difference between 200 pounds of backpacker and gear, and 1200 pounds of beef roaming wherever it likes.  The result is an Emperor’s New Clothes set of rules to be found here, as well as in every Federal Wilderness Area in which I have ever hiked.  Human access (with one exception) may only be on foot.  Cattle usually have access to the entire area, as do ranchers in pickup trucks.  On many types of Federal lands, and not just Wilderness Areas, recreational visitors are told to stay off of unfenced archeological ruins – that cattle can walk across at will, damaging walls and crushing artifacts.  Hikers are told to stay off of the “cryptobiotic soils” (a sort of blackish organic crust that is hard to the touch, but easily crushed by a footstep), because theses organisms help stabilize constantly eroding soils.  If cattle are so instructed, it does not appear that they are inclined to be cooperative.


And, of course, everyone’s favorite:  carry out your own crap and toilet paper (no, it’s not OK in some places anymore to bury the former and burn the latter).  Cattle?  Well, you know.


Admittedly, it’s a tough one, and in Parks, Monuments and elsewhere that are heavily visited, human impact would be more destructive.  Certain types of use, such as ATVs, can be very destructive even at low use levels. But if it really is important not to step on the cryptobiotic soils, then what’s the solution?  Do we honor the lifestyle of the hundreds, or at most a few thousand (I’m purely guessing) people that make their living ranching the Escalante, or do we honor the goals of the Proclamation? 


Nor can the question be viewed in the context of a single Monument, because the vast majority of most southwestern states are Federal lands and Native American reservations.  Viewed from the other side of the fence, it’s a slippery slope that has already made National Parks off limits to ranching.  If we add Monuments to the list, where does it all end?  A good and fair question.  But as the world becomes a more crowded place, it will become more urgent that we come up with the right answers.


How, you might wonder, does this relate to Alaska? 


The point to be made is that once lives, incomes and profits become intertwined with the use of a piece of Federal land, all is necessarily compromises thereafter.  Today, the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge is pristine, while the Escalante is highly compromised.  Political realities by definition require compromise, and more compromise the more interests come to bear.  With more drilling in Alaska, there will be more of those interests, and more compromises.  It’s a timeless truth.  Note this interesting addendum to the Antiquities Act of 1906 for example:


No further extension or establishment of national Monuments in Wyoming may be undertaken except by express authorization of Congress.


I assume that the Congressional Record would show that Wyoming cast the deciding vote on adoption of the Act.


So here’s what I have to say about Alaska.  Pass a law tomorrow that the fleet average for US non-commercial vehicles must be at least 36 miles per gallon in five years, and set a comparable target for commercial vehicles as well.  The technology is there to do it.  US automotive manufacturers would not be at a disadvantage, because the same rules would apply to all imported cars as well.  Offer a big tax rebate immediately to each person that buys a new fuel-efficient car in the first year, with the amount declining each year thereafter.  Add a hefty surcharge on any vehicle that is inefficient.  This surcharge doesn’t decline, and recoups the taxes lost through the rebate program.  Frontloading the rebate in the early years would boost sales dramatically to the car manufacturers to defray change over costs, as there will be an incentive to make the switch sooner rather than later.


The result would be that we would save far more energy than the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge is ever expected to produce, and we’ll be less dependent faster than by bringing the Refuge into production. 


Taking the long view (ten years?) I believe that we will need to take this step anyway, so why not do it now?  The longer we wait, the more US automotive manufacturers will be at a disadvantage, because foreign manufacturers will continue to pull out ahead in energy efficiency technology.


The only simple fact, I think, is this:  Increasing domestic consumption of oil isn’t even an example of treating the symptom rather than the disease — it’s a case of giving clean needles to the junkies.


As Pogo might say if he were “alive” today, we have met the junkies, and they is us.  It’s time to take the cure, rather than compromise another wilderness.

For more selections from Not Here But There: A Wilderness Journal, click here



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