Who owns the earth? Who in the end will save it?

Remarks of Michael Frome, Ph.D.
At the National Conservation Training Center
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
July 3, 2003

Friends here at the National Conservation Training Center and I talked at first of titling our presentation "Reflections on the state of the American conservation movement." In a way I wish we could do that. I would like to reflect on the people I've met and all that I've seen down through the years. However, my wife, who we shall hear from presently, and I believe the environment, peace and social justice are issues integrally connected and that by addressing them as such we will better answer the questions, "Who owns the earth? Who in the end will save it?"

But first, in looking back into my files, I found copy of a talk I gave in 1967, thirty-five years ago, at the Sierra Club biennial wilderness conference, from which I will quote the following paragraph:

"Before the world, [preserving] wilderness demonstrates that ours is an enlightened, idealist nation, not wholly consumed by materialism. It strikes me that our international posture is much better served in such ways than in a wasteful war in Vietnam. In the latter, we are committed to the defoliation of forests and the destruction of people, an incredible means of advocating democratic principles; we are committed to the expenditure of immense resources, in youthful blood and muscle, in soaring portions of the national budget, funds that are now denied to the establishment of the promised Great Society [by Lyndon Johnson]. Yes, we must press the cause of liberty throughout the world, but we should do so by example: with demonstrable action in rebuilding our cities, control of pollution of air and water, control of population size and rate of growth, protection of the soils, management of forests, enhancement of wilderness through fulfillment of the wilderness law - all are related to assure a fuller life and enjoyment of democracy's fruit."

Looking back, that far and beyond, I remember environmental leaders of forty or fifty years ago as missionaries. In the years since then I have watched various leaders of national environmental organizations change from missionaries to corporate CEOs. The late, legendary David Brower may have been the most militant and effective of his day. He was always creative and daring, no mountain too high to climb, no battle of principle too tough to fight. Later he came back to the Sierra Club as a member of the board of directors, but in May 2000 resigned out of frustration. "The world is burning and all I hear from them is the music of violins," he declared. "The planet is being trashed, but the board has no real sense of urgency. We need to try to save the earth at least as fast as it's being destroyed."

In my book he was right as rain: We still are subject to Nero's fiddling while Rome and the world burn. In January 2001, only two and a half years ago, when President George W. Bush nominated Gail Norton, a protégée of James G. Watt, with a dismal environmental record of her own, to be Secretary of the Interior, many citizen groups urged the Senate not to confirm. However, several others said, "Well, give her chance. Let us work with her"

Now we are paying the price for giving Norton and others like her in this administration "the chance." There was plenty of warning for the massive environmental and ecological calamity now at hand. Ten years ago Scott Silver, an Oregon engineer turned activist, established Wild Wilderness in the belief that Americans should not be required to "pay to play" on public properties they own and maintain through taxes. He found the issue goes deeper than admission charges to questions of proper use, and improper misuse, of public lands. He became distressed over the congressionally authorized Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, strongly supported by commercial interests, especially snowmobile and other motorized off-road vehicle manufacturers and users, and over the failure of the "Big Greens" to oppose it. Unfortunately, some organizations, like the National Parks and Conservation Association and Wilderness Society, were out to lunch on this issue.

So the door opened on one issue after another. Today, unless there is serious sharp reversal in direction, our public lands, our national treasures, the landed heritage of the people, will shortly be up for grabs by moneyed America. National parks and national forests will be privatized. Wilderness will be motorized. The endangered species act itself is endangered. Wildlife species throughout the national wildlife refuge system are endangered too, wherever they may compete with oil and gas exploration and other commercial interests. Thousands of positions of federal employees will be "outsourced" to private contractors. Employees who do remain will be reduced to dutiful messengers of corporate control and commercial exploitation of our public lands. The process is underway and picking up steam every day.

But there is more to it. Traditional concepts of environmentalism overlook hidden realities - unpleasant social issues and problems that environmental advocates find convenient to avoid. This struck me when I read in manuscript the opening page of The Boys on the Porch, a book by June Eastvold, my wife. She wrote that principles of justice, compassion, and transformation have been clearly defined in the three words "Love your neighbor," but then asked how such a simple statement can be so difficult to put into practice:

Studies on social problems and class struggles point to the need for change. Yet, despite volumes of data, things stay the same. People caught in poverty remain on the margin. Middle and upper class citizens intentionally construct a daily lifestyle that eliminates direct contact with the poor. The extremes have no meeting ground.

One institution charged with providing a community of mutual acceptance is the church. Yet racial and class separation remain strong there too.

It isn't only in her church where these separations remain strong. It's my church too. I never see blacks at environmental conferences. I never hear a Chicano rise at a hearing to say, "I represent the local Sierra Club chapter." When I read the quarterly journal of the Natural Resource Defense Council I find a list of board members and their affiliations. They are largely Wall Street lawyers and investment counselors, and the same is true of other national environmental organizations. Poor people are not represented on their governing boards, except as an occasional token.

But, then, racial and class separation remain strong all across society. Homeless people sleeping in doorways on the streets are taken for granted. So are children playing in streets surrounded by smokestacks, toxic sites, incinerators and freeways, living with pollution, noise, drugs, disease and chaos. They are low income, black and Latino, people of color pushed into areas unfit for living because they can't afford better housing. And they are invisible.

I've learned that if we can't save the environment for them, where they live, then we can't save it anywhere else either. The seemingly distant national parks and wilderness areas are merely on loan until needed by the corporate system. I think that corporate power allowed establishment of national parks because the areas involved were not good for anything else. But environmental groups and their leaders don't want to hear that. They are so busy with wildland ecology they generously ignore urban ecology, even though the forces that threaten wilderness threaten the places where people live. They do not deal with racism, violence and injustice, forces that exploit many, many people, human resources, in circumstances where they live.

The Northwest Ecosystem Alliance is headquartered in Bellingham, Washington, where I live. It raised $16 million (with large chunks from computer tycoons in Seattle) to purchase logging rights in the Loomis state forest, adjacent to the Pasayten wilderness in eastern Washington. My neighbors and I turned to the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance for support in fighting a critical issue in our own backyard. We thought we had a case.

Bellingham does not retain its natural green setting. It is losing open green space in every part of the city. It does not protect unique natural features. If it did, the city would not have approved a massive, ill-conceived 172-unit subdivision in a heavily forested area called Park Ridge. It was clear at the very beginning of the proposal that the site is fraught with obstacles to development, including two streams running through the full length of the property, numerous extreme slopes and ridges, and limited traffic capacity. Consequently we neighbors organized the Concerned Citizens of Park Ridge. We wrote letters, testified at countless hearings, and raised funds to bring legal action. We sought the cooperation and support of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, but repeatedly were brushed off because "This is only a small local neighborhood issue." Ultimately we lost. The developers won.

The Northwest Ecosystem Alliance organized the Cascades Conservation Partnership and initiated a fundraising campaign to save forests in "the fragile central Cascades ecosystem … and preserve critical habitat for gray wolf, grizzly bear, pine marten, endangered salmon runs, and other wildlife." But all types of animals exist in all types of places. Raccoons, squirrels, mice, deer, opossums, pigeons and skunks make urban areas incredibly wild and natural in their own right. Our 80-acre Park Ridge before it was lost embraced lush vegetation, wetlands and a thriving, diverse wildlife population, remarkably within the city limits of Bellingham. Park Ridge could have provided a growing community with green lungs, opportunities for outdoor recreation and environmental education to complement classroom studies.

If you ask me, we need a new, inclusive environmental vision, a worldview of nature and society that brings concerns and interests of all brethren and sisters, human and nonhuman animals, into our moral gaze. We can it, in the American spirit and the American way. Before coming out here I read a hugely encouraging account of how developers were defeated in their attempt to overturn Measure D, a landmark California open space initiative adopted by the voters of Alameda County three years ago. In ruling on the case, the presiding judge of a state appeals court declared: "Protecting open space and preventing against the ill effects of urban sprawl is, beyond question, beneficial to public health and welfare." Moreover, the leader of the citizen campaign for Measure D declared as follows:

"This ruling vindicates the choices made by a majority of Alameda County voters, who recognize that the county is a special place because of the beauty of its natural environment. Measure D will allow us to grow within and rebuild our urban areas without destroying natural resources needed for agriculture, wildlife habitat, recreation and scenic beauty."

On that cheery note it is a pleasure to yield to June, my partner and wife, poet, visionary, apostle of hope.

This document was prepared by Wild Wilderness. To learn more about ongoing industry-backed congressional efforts to motorize, commercialize, and privatize America's public lands, contact:

Scott Silver, Executive Director,
Wild Wilderness
248 NW Wilmington Avenue,  Bend  OR 97701
Phone (541) 385-5261    E-mail: ssilver@wildwilderness.org