Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Public Land Conservation Grand Bargains, Part 3: Wrestling with the Devil of Principle and the Angel of Pragmatism

In Part 1, we described a hypothetical national public lands conservation and management omnibus package and posed the question of what position Oregon public lands conservationists should take. In Part 2, we examined some historical Oregon examples in search of guidance. In this Part 3, I wrestle with the devil of principle and the angel of pragmatism and make recommendations as to how public lands conservationists should come down.

Figure 1.  Fortunately for the nation’s public lands, the House (at least for now) is controlled by the Democrats, who are generally more pro-public lands than the Republicans. As the House of Representatives and the Senate must agree before a bill can be sent to the president for signature, it’s not just a matter of senators cutting a deal among themselves, but also with the House of Representatives.  Source: Architect of the Capitol.

Figure 1. Fortunately for the nation’s public lands, the House (at least for now) is controlled by the Democrats, who are generally more pro-public lands than the Republicans. As the House of Representatives and the Senate must agree before a bill can be sent to the president for signature, it’s not just a matter of senators cutting a deal among themselves, but also with the House of Representatives. Source: Architect of the Capitol.

To recap, the hypothetical deal detailed in Part 1 for Oregon includes

•       a record-sized expansion of wild and scenic rivers (WSRs) in Oregon that includes protective buffers double the normal width and permanent protection from hardrock mining for all WSRs,

•       a (good if not great) grand bargain centered on public lands in the Owyhee Canyonlands,

•       congressional authorization of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument to remove the threat of Trumpian de-proclamation,

•       a (great if not superb) grand bargain centered on public lands in and around Mount Hood, and

•       a permanent congressional ban on oil and gas drilling offshore Oregon.

Similar packages are included from California, Colorado, New Mexico, Washington, and several other states—among them states with Republican senators who nonetheless want more protected public lands in their states. This prospective omnibus package includes one truly excellent bill that would provide for the permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which the public lands conservation community has made a top priority.

The bad stuff includes

•       facilitating a gas pipeline through Denali National Park to make it easier to de-gas Alaska’s North Slope (and over-gas the climate) for use by foreign countries,

•       overturning administrative protection for roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest to enable an increase in clear-cutting of old-growth rainforest to aid a pathetically small and economically unimportant timber industry in southeast Alaska,

•       putting a road through designated wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to allow Peter Pan Seafood to fly its goods to market,

•       allowing states to take over and increase leasing of oil and gas on federal public lands, and

•       further subsidizing the use of coal by funding federal research to extract rare earth minerals from coal so we can more cheaply read the rising CO2 numbers on our cell phone app.

Support or Oppose?

All choices in life have consequences. All have opportunity costs. In the current scenario, there are two—if not more—sides, as there are for most issues, opportunities, and threats. Below I summarize the case for taking the now hypothetical, but increasing probable, deal and the case for not taking it.

Take the Deal

·      The bill is a net gain for public lands conservation.

·      This is the best we can get.

·      The bad provisions will find their way into other bills if not included in this omnibus public lands bill.

·      At least we are leveraging the bad to achieve some good.

·      Sometimes one has to rise above principle to save the earth.

Don’t Take the Deal

·      The bill is a net loss for conservation.

·      We can hold out for a deal that doesn’t allow all this bad stuff.

·      While we very much want permanent congressional conservation of Oregon lands, the Oregon conservation areas in question are not imminently threatened.

·      The good we will achieve does not outweigh the bad that will occur.

My Recommendation

My recommendation? It depends.

We don’t have to decide now.

For now, let’s work to get in as much good as we can and to keep out as much bad as we can.

However, the conservation community should be psychologically prepared to not only tenuously walk but also to strenuously balk.

A major reason I get up every morning is to achieve the permanent congressional conservation of Oregon’s (and sometimes other) federal public lands. I’ve done some good, and I want to do more. However, sometimes it’s just not the right time.

Patience and persistence are very important to achieving permanent protection. Thirty-two years passed (but who’s counting?) between when I first advocated for the Soda Mountain Wilderness and when Congress established it. (For the record, I didn’t work exclusively on the matter but was always there to help along side those who in the end did more work than I.)

Before I dropped out of Oregon State University in 1976, I proposed the North Fork Malheur River Wilderness. It still has not come to pass. The mainstem itself was made a wild and scenic river in 1988. The roadless area itself attained some level of administrative conservation under the 2001 roadless area conservation rule. We might be able to protect more of the roadless area as wild and scenic river in this package. Perhaps it will be made a wilderness area before I die. Perhaps not.

Congressional public lands conservation victories are episodic and aperiodic. Sometimes they come relatively frequently and other times absolutely not. As that great environmentalist Kenny Rogers sang:

He said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right.
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away"
And know when to run.

Politically, I can be bought, but I am not cheap. I could see an omnibus public lands package that I could support. However, I could also see a package that I could not support.

One must be careful about insisting—to the point of unproductive compromising on public lands (compromising one’s principles is another matter)—that the congressional public lands conservation one has long advocated has to occur on one’s own watch. Sometimes, one’s life is too short for the necessary congressional action to happen. If the price is too high, I’ll come back later. If it’s too late for me, it’s not too late for others who follow in my stead.

Unfortunately, United States senators and representatives operate under a different calculus. For what doesn’t get done on their watch, history gives no credit. As members of Congress age, their thoughts increasingly turn toward legacy. Like many things in life, this can be a two-edged sword. Much congressional protection of federal public lands has coincided with the pending exit of a federal elected official. Unfortunately, sometimes premature and/or inadequate legislation is passed into law because of the pending exit. In these cases, had we been able to wait, we likely could have gotten more (or perhaps in the case of the hypothetical public lands package discussed herein, we could lose less).

For now, let us continue our march forward, championing what we want and opposing what we don’t want, at all times knowing when to walk away (and when to run) and being prepared to actually do it.

Oregon conservationists need to let the Oregon congressional delegation know that while we very much want them to make their positive mark on Oregon’s public lands, it must not come at the expense of other public lands.

One can reasonably forecast the circumstances that would warrant walking away (or running) and one can perfectly backcast when one should have walked away (or run). The challenge is knowing—and more important, having the certitude—in the moment that it’s time to walk away (or run).