Wild Side: Public lands make America great

    As I walked through the crowds celebrating Independence Day Tuesday, I was thinking about what is special about America.

    One thing that certainly makes America great is public land.

    Right here in Southwest Oregon we have a magnificent array of wild rivers, mountain peaks and rugged coastlines that actually belong to all of us. Across the West and beyond, the best of America’s natural beauty is held in trust on public lands, owned by all of us, and managed by the Park Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. No country in the world has a system of public lands like the U.S. does.

    It should be no surprise to anyone that certain well-connected billionaires and the politicians they control want to defraud America of this greatness. They want to drill, log, and mine for their profit what is rightfully owned by all of us: our public lands.

    What is surprising is that, while the U.S. Senate debates health care and the political pundits chase after the latest from the Tweeter-in-Chief, few seem to notice what Congress and the White House are quietly doing to dramatically weaken protections for our public lands.

    Politicians, funded by the Koch Brothers and other billionaires in extractive industries, want all of our public lands turned over to the highest bidder. Where we see forests, mountains, and rivers that belong to all, they see only dollars they can’t get their hands on.

    The latest assault on our public lands is a bill titled H.R. 2936, the “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017.” It is a clever name for a bill that would have grave consequences on our waters, forests, and environmental laws. Introduced by Rep. Westerman (R, Ark.), the bill has nothing to do with making forests healthier or resilient. Quite the opposite, it is designed to boost extraction on public lands to levels the rest of us could never imagine.

    To be sure, there is a place for careful thinning on public lands and forests that can provide jobs and protect communities from wildfire. But the Westerman bill instead opens up millions of acres of currently protected roadless areas all across America to logging and road building, while eliminating the ability of citizens to go to court to stop harmful projects. It will move us further away from reasonable management of our public lands while shifting funding away from environmental restoration and into to timber production.

    The most alarming aspect of this bill though is what it would do right here in southwest Oregon. Forests in Oregon managed by the Bureau of Land Management, including currently protected areas like the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and Wild Rogue River, would be under immediate threat.

    Language in this bill would establish that the primary purpose of all of our Oregon BLM forests is timber production. Hiking, clean water, wildlife, all other uses would be sacrificed for logging. That includes the little old-growth forest that is left. Long-established protections for places like the Wild and Scenic Rogue River, one of the original Wild and Scenic Rivers established in 1968, could go away under this bill. Not only is the Wild Rogue a natural gem, it pumps in nearly $30 million to local economies through travel and tourism. We can’t afford to lose that!

    Our public lands are American treasures. They deliver to us clean drinking water, incredible recreation, and are the only homes for so many plants and so much wildlife. Residents and visitors flock to these natural areas in our region to experience some of America’s most special places.

    Now is the time to step up and participate in democracy. Call the capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and let your member of Congress and your senators know that the Westerman bill is bad for forests, bad for clean water, and bad for what already makes America.

    — Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.

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