Update: (Late last night, Rep. Chaffetz withdrew H.R. 621, saying he understood it “sent the wrong message.” Now for H.J. Res. 46, and H.R. 622, which removes federal law enforcement from public lands. Stay vigilant.)
One Wednesday afternoon at the office recently, I was idly checking my Twitter feed. Badlands National Park had a tweet, brisk and matter-of-fact, about five down from the top of my feed: “The pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). As of December 2016, 404.93 ppm.”
On any other day, in any other year, this would have been an ordinary advisory about climate change from a national park. Today, though, it was compelling; the brand new, climate-denying Trump administration had just taken office a few days before, and that very day had instructed NPS employees to cease use of Twitter until further notice. But someone was refusing to shut up.
A second tweet appeared: “Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years.” Then the retweets started. Soon every other tweet in my feed was a retweet from the Badlands National Park account. Then, in true Twitter fashion, the tweets about the tweets began.
A few hours later, the tweets from the Badlands had been deleted; it was a brief but unmistakable civic act, couched in the simple assertion of science. Later, the National Park Service stated that a former employee who was still able to access the account was the culprit. I don’t know if that’s true, but overnight, alternative agency accounts began proliferating like kudzu, some run by current employees, others run by those outside the various agencies but with connections to those inside them. The alternative accounts began tweeting the science relevant to their agency’s particular mission – in short, exactly what you would expect to see from government agencies that weren’t muzzled to ensure that facts don’t conflict with the administration’s politics.
As I watched this unfold, I thought for a long time about all the images I’ve shot in the Badlands, and how good that place has been to me, and to my photography. And although I love it, my affinity for public lands extends far beyond that particular park, because my identity was forged in them. An enormous part of my adult life – and my childhood as well – has been spent in national parks, forests, monuments, and refuges. Exploring open spaces, photographing them, and bringing back the stories they tell me is the most pressing, consistent urge in my life; throughout the nearly half century I’ve been alive, that urge has been on par with the drive I felt to partner and to parent. But the continued existence of those spaces, and our ability to access them, is at risk, both from the climate change the new administration refuses to acknowledge, and from the Republican party, that wants to sell them off.
I sleep harder in a tent than anywhere else, and if the dog isn’t there to whine until I unzip the tent so he can pee, I’ll sleep into the late morning. My husband, Travis, is just the opposite. So one June morning at 5:20 a.m. a few years ago, he poked me and reminded me that the night before, I’d committed to getting some early morning shots.
I tried to deflect. “I’m cold,” I mumbled. He was immovable. “I’ll get you my jacket,” he replied.
As he left the tent, I cracked a single eyelid, and through a millimeter of clearance, saw a stunning, predawn Badlands sky. That was enough. I climbed out of my bag, pulled on my boots, stuck my head into my tie-died floppy hat, and set out. I was awake by the time we made it to the top of Sage Creek Basin and found our way blocked by a herd of jaywalking bison, who apparently also get up early. They parted for us slowly, and with obvious annoyance.
We settled at an overlook a short distance away with lots of vistas for me to shoot and a place for Travis to set up the backpacking stove and make coffee. As the sun crept over the edge of the Badlands, I hopped happily around taking photographs.
I was downhill from the overlook a bit, calf-deep in yellow coreopsis when I heard Travis calling my name and gesturing.
“You need to come back up here,” he advised, pointing at something further down the hill. I followed his finger, and saw a big, brown beast lumbering slowly up a nearby game trail toward me – a stray, perhaps, from the herd we had annoyed half an hour earlier. I shouldered my camera strap and hoofed it back to the overlook.
Surely, I thought, watching his progress, he isn’t coming all the way up here.
A few minutes later his head popped up over the lip of the overlook.
Travis had just finished the coffee when I returned, so we had picked up the steaming cups, stove and associated equipment and moved to a safe distance. We watched as the bull approached the posts near the overlook. He lingered near one for awhile, as if trying to make a weighty decision. Then he stretched his neck carefully over the pointy tip of the post and began scratching vigorously. After attending to his neck, he reversed his enormous body and positioned his hind end at just the right angle, and commenced a slow, luxuriant ass-scratch. He worked on his butt for a long while, and then stepped away and meandered off down the hill again.
I looked down at my now cooled coffee, and took a sip. I had been too busy watching a bison scratch his ass to drink it. I respect that the life of a bison is probably an itchy one. This fellow probably needed the scratch more than I needed my coffee to be hot. And anyway, I reasoned, it’s far better to drink warmish coffee somewhere you can be interrupted by an ass-scratching buffalo than hot coffee in a place where no such diversions are available.
The concept of public lands is not a settled one. Most everyone takes the national parks, wildlife refuges, and forests for granted, but not only is their continued public ownership not guaranteed, it is actively being disputed. Outside magazine recalls the following portion of the Republican Party platform adopted at the convention last summer:
Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.
But, as Outside also points out, most states don’t have the budget to care for these lands, and so will likely sell them off to the highest bidder. Which is the point: as the Denver Post editorial board observes, transfers of federal public lands are just a way to sell them off to developers or private corporations.
This is not a hypothetical. In early January, the House of Representatives included in a rules package a measure declaring that land transfers were “cost-free.” In effect, this means that the federal government need not account for the loss of their value in transferring them to the states in which they are located. Then, last week, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R), filed H.R. 621, “a Bill to direct the Secretary of the Interior to Sell certain Federal Lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.”
Why? Well, the stated reason is again found in the Republican platform:
Federal ownership or management of land also places an economic burden on counties and local communities in terms of lost revenue to pay for things such as schools, police, and emergency services. It is absurd to think that all that acreage must remain under the absentee ownership or management of official Washington.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the facts are inconsistent with the notion that federal ownership is an “absurdity.” The same Outside article linked above references a 2014 Department of the Interior report that reached a completely different conclusion on the economics of the matter:
In 2014, the Department of the Interior says over 400 million people visited the lands it managed, supporting 355,000 jobs and creating $25 billion in spending. Energy production on DOI lands created an economy contribution of $220 billion and was responsible for one million jobs. DOI water storage and delivery netted our economy $60 billion and supports 378,000 jobs.
I’m skeptical about the Republican Party’s concern for the communities near the public lands, and suspect that other interests may be at the root of their wishes. I thought about that again this week, when the National Parks Conservation Association reported that Rep. Gosar (R-AZ) had introduced H.J. Res. 46, an attempt to repeal updates to the National Park Service’s rules for oil and gas drilling in the national parks in which parties other than the government own the subsurface mineral rights.
The rules at issue, as updated, require extensive planning for drilling operations and set safety standards. If repealed, the NPCA warns, the national parks would have little input into the drilling that happens within them. Leaks and spills could go unpunished and there would be little incentive to avoid them. Roads could be built within national parks with impunity. Drilling companies would not be required to inform parks or park visitors about their operations. In sum, operations could be easily commenced in our national parks to extract the carbon-intensive resources that are already degrading them through climate change.
The question arises: in whose interest is it that our national parks become drilling sites? In whose interest is it that public lands be sold to developers or extraction industries? It’s not in the interest of the $646 billion dollar outdoor recreation industry that provides the country 6.1 million jobs. It’s certainly not in the interest of hunters or fishermen. And it’s definitely not in the interest of ordinary citizens in the American West, of which group a staggering 95% visited public lands in 2015. That leaves the oil and gas industry, and other business interests that have donated millions to Republicans, who stand to gain the most from the conversion of public lands. It’s definitely in their interest. It is not in ours.
I can’t say I unreservedly loved the landscape of the Boundary Waters at first sight; rather, it was a place that slowly wore a groove into me, through appeal to my other senses. At the end of a five day trip on which we had encountered fewer people than we could count on one hand, we packed up camp and began paddling back to our put-in spot. We had been gifted with a cool, overcast October day laced with a gentle mist. The wind was at rest, and so the water was too.
My partners, my husband and his best friend of thirty-five years, climbed into the canoe. I took the kayak. The three of us had been talking endlessly all week, covering every topic from relationships to personalities to rock music trivia to environmental philosophy. But this morning, our tongues stilled along with the water. We were there to listen. All three of us seemed to sense that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area had chosen that morning to show its character.
Halfway down Loon Lake I understood that I was experiencing the difference between quiet and silence. Quiet is the absence of din; but silence is total, all-encompassing, and, I know now, exceedingly rare. I used to think I had experienced silence in my home, perhaps in my bed at night, but I suspect what I was really experiencing was quiet; there were other, background sounds, but they weren’t obtrusive.
But if you still your paddle on water like this, there will be long moments of genuine and unbroken silence, punctuated briefly and occasionally by the distant chattering of a ground squirrel, the snap of a twig under a paw, or, in the luckiest of circumstances, the call of a loon.
The paradox of silence is that it promotes the most delicate of sounds, and enables the listener to hear and experience things that would otherwise remain unobserved, like the journey of a single yellow aspen leaf from the canopy to the leaf litter below.
Many people I know visit here for fishing, for solitude, or for scenery. For me, though, the true genius of this place is that these vast stretches of open water serve a nursery for silence, at the same time they nurture wildlife, plants, and the spirit of the adventurer.
The purity of these waters, though, is not assured, and must be continually guarded. Mining interests want to extract sulfide ore just upstream of the wilderness area, a process that produces sulfuric acid runoff. In an op-ed last summer in the New York Times, Theodore Roosevelt IV and Walter Mondale notes that such runoff often ends up in nearby streams. Similar mines, they note, have already poisoned lakes and thousands of miles of streams. Such an outcome could also decimate northern Minnesota’s tourist industry.
Late last year, the outgoing Obama administration declined to renew the mining leases at issue. The Bureau of Land Management blocked mining in the area for two years while studying whether to block it for a longer time. However, Rep. Rick Nolan has sent a letter to the Trump administration asking them to overturn the Obama administration’s decision. So the question, like so many others, is not settled.
Ultimately, I don’t think economics can dispose of the federal public lands question, even as I believe the numbers weigh in favor of their continued existence. But in any event, among those eager to transfer public lands to state or private interests, I see little real wrestling with the genuine economic impacts of transfer. Rather, as the Wilderness Society put it, there seems to be “an eternal grudge against the very idea of public lands” – an aversion to the very idea that a citizen without the wherewithal to buy them wholesale should be permitted to stake some claim to the vast and open spaces of America.
In many ways, this dispute over collective social goods is representative of much of what is tearing us apart in this country right now. But disagreements over Obamacare or food stamps do not appear to extend to public lands. According to polling conducted after the recent election, seventy-eight percent of voters oppose a plan to privatize or sell public lands. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, however. As we have seen, majority will does not always or even usually translate into corresponding actions of our elected officials. If they think they can get away with handing off our public lands to their donors, they will certainly do it. Our task is to make sure they understand they can’t get away with it.
It’s July of 2007, and I’m at a seminar in Glacier National Park on the subject of glacial recession. The thermometer back at the campground says 95 degrees, but the temperature near the edge of the Grinnell Glacier feels twenty degrees cooler. In front of me is a massive, grinding river of ice streaked with deep crevasses, powerful enough to chew up mountains.
I’m a little apprehensive about stepping onto this beast, but our workshop instructor, Jeff, is exuberant. He’s already testing the strength of the glacier with his ice axe, listening for hollow, weak ice that won’t support our weight. “Stay to the left of that crevasse,” he advises as he builds a cairn, or pile of rocks, to mark our way. “Oh, and avoid that gray ice over there,” he adds as he moves ahead. Uh, okay, I think. I follow his steps exactly.
Jeff leads us a short way onto the glacier. It’s not safe to go any farther, he says, as the tips of the crevasses extend only a few feet beyond where we’re standing. I look down. The ice beneath my feet seems almost iridescent. Rocks of varying sizes are liberally strewn on and embedded in the ice, accounting for its slightly dirty appearance from afar.
I stay rooted to my spot. Even with the cairns, I’d have an incredibly difficult time finding my way back across the ice safely. Two or three years before my visit, a day hiker ventured alone onto the glacier while his friends waited, and fell 35 feet into a crevasse. After much grueling work, the Park Service managed to extricate him from the crevasse, but he died shortly afterward.
Jeff talks about glacial formations and characteristics. He points out a moulin, which is a vertical shaft that runs down into the glacier. He reminds us of the discussion in the film An Inconvenient Truth about lakes forming beneath glaciers, and tells us that moulins like this facilitate the flow of water beneath the ice sheet.
Grinnell Glacier is not a quiet place; different noises punctuate Jeff’s speech. You can hear the loud rush of water somewhere below, and once or twice the thunderous sound of cracking ice interrupted our discussion. The place feels somehow alive.
Even though this glacier is a fraction of the size it was 150 years ago, it still seems just massive. I try to imagine this entire cirque covered in glacial ice, but it seems incomprehensible. But later on, when Jeff shows us how much of the glacier has disappeared just since last summer, the ice appears a good deal smaller. Indeed, Upper Grinnell Lake, adjacent to the glacier, did not exist the year before my birth; it was part of the glacier. The span of my lifetime saw the retreat of 40% of the Grinnell Glacier.
It’s been ten years since I stood on the edge the glacier and watched as Jeff soberly marked off the amount of recession that had occurred since he had stood there the previous year. I look at images of the glacier, now, and am startled to see how much it has dwindled since then.
My son may be lucky enough to see the park’s glaciers before they disappear entirely, but it’s unlikely his children will. If carbon dioxide levels reach worst-case scenario levels, the drop dead date for the glaciers here is 2030. After that, like the snows of Kilimanjaro, they would be gone.
Every day, our park rangers see the life-changing impacts of our public lands on those who visit them. They also see the reverse – the impact of humanity on our national lands, in the melted glaciers, the diminishing and pressured wildlife, and the altered ecosystems. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when the Badlands went rogue; these people are in a position to understand the reality of climate change and environmental depredation in a way the rest of us aren’t, because they see it firsthand, every day, in their work. And because these are some of our nation’s most pristine areas, they know intimately what we stand to lose when we smooth the way for drilling within them, or tempt ourselves to sell them off. When the Trump administration attempted to muzzle park staff on matters of environmentalism and science, it must have felt, for some of them, like a negation of their life’s work.
Glaciers, itchy bison and public lands cannot speak for themselves in a world in which their existence is increasingly called into question. They need human spokespeople, and as one alt-agency account after another popped up last week, I felt a thrill in my heart for the people who refused to abandon this responsibility. I couldn’t help but feel that the parks themselves were speaking, and for a moment, I couldn’t separate my love of the Badlands from my admiration for the small but radical act of speaking a simple truth to enormous power. That afternoon, they showed us what we all have to do, if we value what is ours. We must all become the voice of the Badlands, and of every single acre of public land.
Because they are ours. And we are theirs.
(Follow the alt-NPS account here for information on how to help, or follow the National Parks Conservation Association on Facebook here. The cleverly named BadHombreLands National Park can be found here. Follow me here, because I retweet everyone!)