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Has Public Lands Preservation Become Obsolete?


    Is the preservation movement dead? Is it a withering fad of the Baby Boomers' 1960s and 1970s heydays, one that doesn't resonate with today's youth?
    A University of Nevada-Las Vegas professor seems to think so. In a provocative piece that hit cyberspace earlier this month, Professor Hal Rothman suggests that preservation, the hallmark of the environmental movement, has been supplanted by recreation.
     "In the American West," Rothman writes in an essay that first appeared on the New West Network, "the age of preservation has ended and that of recreation has begun."
    It's a disturbing hypothesis, one that hopefully will evoke much debate and reaction.

    Sadly, the professor seems to equate preservation and environmentalism with elitism, a connection that further exacerbates the divide between the environmental movement and the recreation sector by attempting to give credence to that misguided impression.
    "Environmentalism placed an incredibly high premium on the idea of wilderness, tacitly implying that prosperity had created a world in which all who deserved affluence had attained it," he writes. "At the end of the American industrial economy, this premise led to great pressure to add existing wilderness.
    "These principles have now grown stale and even archaic. Environmentalism is a set of values, not the Ten Commandments. As a value system, it has to compete for adherents. In the 1960s and 1970s, its version of authenticity held center stage. Of late, it hasn't."
    It hasn't? Then why over the past seven months or so has there been such a heated debate over the National Park Service's efforts to rewrite its Management Policies, which guide how the agency manages the resources of our national park system?
    Over at The Wilderness Society, Kristen Brengal agrees that motorized recreation is rapidly growing in parts of the country. But to say that conservation is on the wane, she can't buy into that.
    "I don't think the concept of conservation is dead. I think it's very alive, and I think seeing the sort of gut, bi-partisan reaction to upending Park Service Management Policies is a strong indication that people still care about protecting national parks, and therefore other public lands," Brengal told me.
     Rothman contends that, "Wilderness is dead; not as a reserved land, but as a movement or a viable political strategy. It's constituency is aging and it is losing political support to recreation by leaps and bounds." But that view seems a tad skewed when, as Brengal points out, Congress late last year passed, and then President Bush signed into law, legislation that created not one, not two, but three officially designated wilderness areas, in Puerto Rico, New Mexico and Utah.
    "Saying that wilderness, our sort of policy position, is outdated, if that were truly the case, three wilderness bills wouldn't have passed at the end of last year," she says. "I'm not sure that that's completely accurate, that the Wilderness Act doesn't work anymore or there's no more constituency to pass wilderness bills, because obviously there is or else President Bush wouldn't have signed those bills into law."
    Rothman, to his credit, stresses that the motorized recreational community, if indeed it has "become kings and queens of the castle" as he claims, must live up to the responsibility that comes with that mantle.
    "No longer do recreationalists grapple with opponents about which lands they can use," he writes. "The entire recreational community must now develop an ethic of sustainability that will assure that the sports recreationalists choose continue for generations. Leadership that provides stewardship of the resources it uses and consumes and develops a political position that wisely manages power from the inside rather than sits outside carping is essential.
    "Recreation now faces an internal struggle among its many constituencies to define its values, the do's and don'ts of a new land ethic."
    Brengal agrees that motorized recreationalists must police themselves. Borrowing from the professor's analogy to nobility, she suggests that "it may be more accurate to say that (damaging) unmanaged recreational use is not king and queen but rather a squatter in the castle who needs to be evicted."
    Professor Rothman's piece is certainly provocative, and perhaps that's all he intended it to be, a hyperbolic exercise intended to spur debate and reflection over how we Americans are stewarding our public lands.
    However, I think he overreaches in stereotyping today's youth as "twelve-images-per-second beings," a generation too concerned about personal comfort to experience the out-of-doors in any way but through a computer monitor or gaming console.
    If we as a society have become so short-sighted, so lazy and so enamored with the latest technological toys, then we've lost sight of the natural world and we're a poorer society for that.
    As motorized recreation stretches its limits, and demands more and more of our public lands, it steadily, and not very slowly, damages the same precious resource many of its extremists insist they have a right to enjoy. And then what?
    There can be a middle ground, achieved through reasoned dialog, and for Professor Rothman to suggest that "recreationalists, motorized and otherwise, have won," I think does a disservice to those trying to find that middle ground.


I've been lamenting the apparent passing of the "John Muir" movement for a few years now. Having lands to wreck-re-ate on is a fine thing. Hell, public lands! That's where the future of fish-and-wildlife conservation is. But when places are saved because of their recreation potential (whether for ATVs, mountain bikers, hikers, what-have-you), we're in trouble.

The simple truth of the matter is that hunting, fishing, horseback riding and other outdoor pursuits is declining. Until the conservation community and low-impact recreationists make greater headway in working together, more and more public lands will be developed and opened up to noisy recreation, and fewer places for solitude and peace will remain. Making wilderness and parks accessible to young people is critical, but with agencies rolling up the welcome mat and setting up ever increasing recreation access fees, many people are being priced off the public domain altogether. It also doesn't help that the American Recreation Coalition, which calls most of the shots on public land recreation issues these days in Washington DC, has no real counter coalition to keep their pro-motor and pro-commercialization in check. There's much to be done.

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