Andy Kerr

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

National Parks

The Overcrowding of Public Lands

In early January 2018, the National Park Service instituted a new parking reservation system for Muir Woods National Monument near San Francisco. Actually, it is more accurate to say “for Muir Woods National Monument in the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA Combined Statistical Area (CSA).” The 554-acre national monument includes 240 acres of magnificent old-growth coast redwood forest. An estimated 1.2 million people visit each year, drawing mainly from the ~8.8 million and increasing humans of greater San Francisco. The mere 232 parking spaces just cannot handle the crowds anymore. It will now cost $8 per vehicle, along with the $10 entrance fee, to park your car if you want to take in Muir Woods. If you don’t plan far enough ahead, you might be able to catch a shuttle ($3) from downtown Sausalito, but those require reservations as well. Farewell, dear spontaneity.

  Mount  Hood from Lost Lake, which has not been lost for a very long time. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

Mount Hood from Lost Lake, which has not been lost for a very long time. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

Though four presidents expanded Muir Woods National Monument after Theodore Roosevelt set aside the first 295 acres in 1908, the expansion of the monument has not kept up with the expansion of the nearby population. It’s not like there are adjacent stands of majestic old-growth coast redwoods next door just waiting for inclusion in the monument. Naturally, the coast redwood has a very limited range on Earth (about two million acres in a narrow strip from just south of Big Sur to just north of the Oregon-California border, with 95 percent having been clear-cut).

The National Park Service is doing similar rationing in Yosemite and Haleakala National Parks and is considering the same for Zion and Arches National Parks.

There are two overarching reasons to conserve, restore, and increase the acreage of public lands:

·      to provide for the adequate functioning of ecosystems and watersheds across the landscape (and seascape) and over time so as to provide the vital goods and services that only nature can provide to this and future generations

·      to allow this and future generations adequate opportunities to directly and indirectly engage in recreational (pronounced “re-creational”) pursuits that support and renew the mind, body, and soul

The former—the provision of adequate nature for ecosystem functioning—is extremely difficult but not impossible. The latter—the provision of adequate nature for recreation—is not only extremely difficult but also may be impossible if the human population continues to grow like cancer.

Providing Adequate Nature: Supply and Demand Problems

As to the amount of land and water humans need to conserve and restore in order to provide for nature and her vital goods and services, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson makes a compelling case in his greatest book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Wilson’s recommendations come through the lens of species requirements. To exist, species need what they need. It’s not negotiable.

Regarding the provision of adequate nature for recreation, it’s not so much a supply problem as a demand problem. Increasingly, there are too many humans seeking to recreate in the same places at the same time. To a degree, more public lands could be reclaimed for recreational purposes, but, hopefully, not at the expense of the first overarching reason. More national recreation areas should be established on public lands (here is a list of some that and could be established in Oregon) and more private lands should be reconverted to public lands upon which to put more recreation areas. However, demand for natural recreation areas outstrips supply both because demand is out of control and because supply is inherently limited.

In general, there are too many people on Earth for our own collective good, and it’s getting worse. Human population continues to further outstrip the long-term carrying capacity of air, water, and land—and even the human requirement for elbow room. Unless this growth is soon stopped and then reversed, all bets are off.

The supply of natural recreation areas is inherently limited by considerations of both proximity and uniqueness. Most humans live in cities, and there is only so much land and water that can be used for human recreation. While I benefit greatly from knowing that the vast Brooks Range in northern Alaska is there, I—and most others—won’t be visiting it. Instead we mostly tend to visit natural recreation areas closer to home. With regard to uniqueness, there is only one Mount Hood near the Portland-Vancouver-Salem, OR-WA CSA and only one Mount Rainier near the Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia, WA CSA. Conjuring up another Cascade peak to satisfy the demand for natural recreation is not possible.

Negotiating Increasingly Crowded Spaces

The Oregon I grew up in and am growing old in used to be a lot less crowded. Over the decades my enjoyment of natural recreation areas has been a negotiation, mainly in the form of strategic retreat and lowered expectations. For example, in my youth, one could reasonably expect a hot spring in the western Cascades, and certainly in Oregon’s Sagebrush Sea, to be uncrowded. Today, a visit to a forested hot spring near the Willamette Valley will be an overcrowded experience.

To get the solitude that to me and many others is a vital part of natural recreation, I started shifting my recreation in both time and space. For a while, if I went to hot springs during the week, and then late at night (or even better, early in the morning), and then finally in the dead of winter during heavy rains or snow, I could obtain the requisite solitude. There were also hot springs that were an eight- to ten-hour drive from the Willamette Valley, accessible by relatively poor roads, where I could find solitude. That worked for a while, but the crowds from LaBendmondville (aka the Bend-Pineville CSA)—which is nothing more or less than the present easternmost demographic extent of the Willamette Valley—discovered not only those hot springs but also those lava caves, fault-block ranges, post-Pleistocene lakes and other recreational attractants of Oregon’s Sagebrush Sea.

  In 2000, I helped persuade Congress to extend special protections to Steens Mountain (background). We tried to include the vast desolately enchanted landscape to the each, including Mickey Hot Springs (foreground), but had to settle for a mere mineral withdrawal. At least there will never be geothermal exploitation of Mickey and several other other springs.    Source: Bureau of Land Management.

In 2000, I helped persuade Congress to extend special protections to Steens Mountain (background). We tried to include the vast desolately enchanted landscape to the each, including Mickey Hot Springs (foreground), but had to settle for a mere mineral withdrawal. At least there will never be geothermal exploitation of Mickey and several other other springs. Source: Bureau of Land Management.

In response to increasing overpopulation, what came to Muir Woods will eventually be coming to a natural recreation area near and/or dear to you. But actually, reversing overpopulation is not that hard. If all those who wanted children would limit themselves to two, what is now out of control could soon be back in control.

Will Trump Dump National Monuments?

President Trump signed an executive order on April 26, 2017, that directs Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review sixty-two of the last three presidents’ national monument proclamations, dating back to 1996. The review will result in a final report in four months that “shall include recommendations, Presidential actions, legislative proposals, or other actions consistent with law.”

The administration is interested in either totally abolishing, reducing in size, and/or weakening the protections for national monuments. Those prerogatives belong to Congress. If Trump tries, he’ll get a multitude of tweets saying, “See you in court!”

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A Stage Theory of Elevating the Status of Federal Public Lands

If one rationally considered the probability of succeeding at elevating a discrete piece of federal public land to the status of a congressionally designated national what-have-you area (wilderness, wild and scenic river, national park, national monument, national recreation area, national wildlife refuge, or such), one might never embark on the voyage. One usually has to overcome an entrenched establishment of industry, locals, and government that doesn’t want things to change. Yet, conservationists proceed anyway, and if they are smart, clever, and persistent (with emphasis on the latter) enough, they do find success. It often takes a generation to change the world, or even a part of it.

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A Public Lands Conservation Agenda for the New President

The climate, the oceans, species, watersheds, ecosystems, landscapes, cultures, and economies that depend on federal public lands all depend upon the 45th president of the United States having a bold public lands conservation agenda.

While the Property Clause (Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2) of the United States Constitution vests the power over federal public lands with Congress, as the legislative branch Congress cannot be expected to oversee the day-to-day operation of the federal public lands. Therefore, Congress has broadly set policies and then directed specified entities in the executive branch to carry them out. For example, the vast number of congressional statutes pertaining to the National Forest System make reference to the secretary of agriculture (or in some cases the chief of the Forest Service) as the responsible official empowered and directed by Congress to carry out the statute. As most federal public lands are under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, the secretary of the interior (and occasionally the director of the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and so on) is similarly empowered or directed.

Though these cabinet officers or agency heads are appointed by the president, they must be confirmed by the Senate before they can assume the office. When it comes to federal public lands, these public land officials have two masters, the president who gave them their job and the Congress—in particular the committees of jurisdiction (the House of Representatives’ Committee on Natural Resources and the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources)—who gave them their marching orders.

In some cases, Congress has granted the president certain powers over federal public lands, most notably to proclaim national monuments or to allow or disallow the development of offshore oil and gas. The president and her cabinet and agency heads should use these and other powers granted to them by Congress to advance the cause of conservation of the public lands for the benefit of this and future generations.

What follows is a public lands conservation agenda that the next president could implement without any additional Acts of Congress. It’s unfortunate to have to assume Congress missing in action when it comes to the conservation of federal public lands, but it is. (I hear Congress was more dysfunctional just before the Civil War, but I wasn’t there.)

1. Keep it in the ground.

Federal public lands account for about a quarter of all U.S. fossil fuel production and therefore one-quarter of the carbon dioxide pollution from those sources. To help avert the worst effects of climate change, an immediate ban on new federal fossil fuel leases should be imposed, nonproducing current leases should be allowed to expire, and existing producing leases should be bought back. Doing such will not only help mitigate climate change, it will also prevent harm to the nature that depends on federal public land. Several conservation organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity, are leading the Keep It in the Ground campaign for federal public lands.

2. Ban renewable energy development on federal public lands.

While less damaging to the climate, the supposed “green” electrons that come from renewable energy projects on federal public lands are better thought of as “light brown” electrons. Concentrated production of renewable energy from wind, solar, and geothermal is as damaging to nature as concentrated production of nonrenewable energy from coal, oil, and gas. Poxing the federal public lands with wind towers or covering them with photovoltaic panels renders that public land parcel worthless for conservation. Public lands have a higher and better use than industrial sites for any kind of energy development. For example, both the desert tortoise and photovoltaic panels find suitable habitat in the California desert. However, solar panels can live—better actually—on roofs in town, while the desert tortoise cannot.

3. Double the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Under existing congressional authorities, the secretary of the interior by secretarial order or the president by executive order can establish new or expand existing national wildlife refuges. These expansions can come from federal public lands currently administered by the Bureau of Land Management or encompass an area of nonfederal land so that the lands can later be acquired by donation or purchase from willing sellers.

4. Proclaim more national monuments.

In the Antiquities Act of 1906, Congress gave the president authority to proclaim national monuments. Hundreds of millions of acres of federal public lands in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone and many tens of millions of acres of onshore public lands are worthy of national monument designation. Most presidents have mostly proclaimed national monuments as they were leaving office; but given the general dysfunction of Congress, national monuments should be proposed and proclaimed early and often. For some onshore areas, it may be appropriate for the president to announce her intention to proclaim a national monument well in advance in order to spur Congress to act to conserve an area in ways that can be superior to a national monument proclamation. For example, President Obama’s interest in proclaiming a national monument in Idaho in 2015 prompted Congress to establish 275,000 acres of wilderness in central Idaho—a bill that had been languishing for nearly a decade.

5. Save Wyoming and Alaska federal public lands in other creative ways.

Part of the 1950 congressional deal to combine Grand Teton National Monument (est. 1929) and Jackson Hole National Monument (est. 1942) to create Grand Teton National Park excluded Wyoming from any future presidential proclamations of national monuments. In Alaska, since enactment of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, the president’s authority to proclaim new national monuments is limited to ones less than 5,000 acres in size. Much of the 73 million acres of BLM holdings in Alaska and the 18 million in Wyoming are in need of elevated conservation. With the Antiquities Act rendered useless in these two states, the president could establish new national wildlife refuges or direct her secretary of the interior to do so. In addition, the president could issue executive orders directing the BLM to manage particular areas of public lands for conservation purposes and to prohibit harmful activities.

6. Keep it in the forest.

A very large fraction of the excess atmospheric carbon came not from the burning of fossil fuels but from the conversion of native forests to cities, farmlands, and clear-cuts. Forests on federal public lands need to be protected in order to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and store it securely.

The United States owns tens of millions of acres of “moist” (not subject to frequent fire) forest types in southeastern Alaska, western Washington, western Oregon, northern California, northern Idaho, and northwestern Montana. These moist forests act as huge and secure stores of carbon, and they also sequester additional carbon back to the biosphere from the atmosphere. Most are within the National Forest System, but some significant areas are administered by the BLM. By executive order, the president could direct the secretaries of agriculture (Forest Service) and interior (BLM) to set aside “carbon reserves” that contain moist forests to conserve already-stored carbon and to maximally sequester additional carbon to help ameliorate the effects of climate change. Many of these moist forest stands consist of older (mature and old-growth) trees that are best suited to resist and adapt to climate change.

7.Keep it in the grass.

Temperate grasslands store more carbon on average than temperate forests, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The difference is that most of the carbon in a forest is aboveground, while most of the carbon in a grassland is belowground. Livestock grazing and other destructive agricultural practices have not only severely reduced aboveground carbon stores (otherwise known as plants) but also allowed the release of much belowground carbon. Carbon reserves such as those recommended for moist forest types could also be established to protect public land deserts and grasslands.

8. Raise royalties on federal energy revenues.

While the best thing for the world’s climate is for the federal government to collect no royalties from fossil fuel production on federal public lands as it should no longer be allowed, until that time the taxpayers should receive a fair return on something private entities are allowed to sell. A report by the Center for Western Priorities notes that the royalty paid to the federal treasury for fossil fuel production from federal lands is 12.5 percent of revenues. Compare this to the 16.75 percent charged by Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and Colorado, or the 18.75 percent charged by New Mexico and North Dakota, or the 25 percent charged by Texas for fossil fuel production from state lands. The federal government receives 18.75 percent for offshore oil and gas.

Besides representing a fair percentage of revenues, the royalty should factor in the social cost of carbon (SC-CO2). SC-CO2 is measured in $/tonne and includes—but is not limited to—the cost of changes in net agricultural productivity, adverse impacts on human health, property damage from flooding, and changes in the energy system due to climate change. It is the cost to society of placing CO2 in the atmosphere. Burning a barrel of oil (42 U.S. gallons) emits 0.43 tonnes of CO2. West Texas Intermediate (WTI Crude Oil, a benchmark for oil prices) is trading for around $50/barrel. Ifthe SC-CO2 is $36/tonne CO2, adding the social cost of carbon to the price of a federal barrel of oil would increase its price by ~$16. It probably wouldn’t offset the special tax breaks afforded to fossil fuel producers that are permanently embedded in the U.S. tax code, but it would help level the playing field for sustainable and renewable forms of energy.

9. Withdraw all scenic- and recreation-classified wild and scenic rivers from mining.

In its wisdom (pronounced “compromise”), Congress specified in the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA) that only the segments of wild and scenic rivers classified as “wild” would be withdrawn from the application of the federal mining laws. Those segments classified as “scenic” or “recreational” are not protected by WSRA from mining. The difference is that a “wild” segment generally has no roads in its corridor, whereas a “scenic” segment may have a road crossing its corridor and a “recreational” segment a road along its corridor. If a stream is worthy of inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System (NWSRS), it’s worthy of not being mined. Some—but far from all—such stream segments have been withdrawn from mining by the secretary of the interior under the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act withdrawal provision for the maximum allowed twenty years. All of the NWSRS should be so protected from mining.

10. Link mineral withdrawals to management plans.

The Forest Service and the BLM develop land and resource management plans under the authority of the National Forest Management Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), respectively. In such plans the agencies designate lands for conservation and sometimes prohibit such things as logging, road building, grazing, off-road vehicles, fluid mineral leasing, and other activities that would harm the values for which the area is being managed. However, under the Mining Law of 1872, an area of federal land may only be protected from hardrock (gold, etc.) mining if the area has been “withdrawn” pursuant to the withdrawal provision of FLPMA. The president should direct the BLM and the Forest Service to promptly apply to the secretary of the interior for such mineral withdrawals, and she should direct the secretary to promptly withdraw them.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
— —Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Life in the Woods (1854)

A National Desert and Grassland System

It’s time for the BLM to have its own comprehensive land conservation system: a National Desert and Grassland System. Congress should place appropriate BLM lands into a system of national deserts and national grasslands similar to the National Forest System.

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The National Park System

National parks are commonly called our nation’s best idea. (Actually, public lands, which include the national parks, are America’s best idea.) Today the National Park System has 413 units (which you can see in a map that is interactive or one that is suitable for framing), all established by or through an Act of Congress. Besides the 59 national parks, there are 84 national monuments, 19 national preserves, 50 national historic parks, 78 national historic sites, 1 international historic site, 4 national battlefield parks, 9 national military parks, 11 national battlefields, 1 national battlefield site, 30 national memorials, 18 national recreation areas, 10 national seashores, 4 national lakeshores, 15 national rivers, 2 national reserves, 4 national parkways, 3 national trails, and 11 sundry other units. The diversity of designations reflects the diversity of natural, historical, and cultural features being protected for this and future generations.

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The Maine Woods: A National Treasure in Need of National Protection

Pulp has passed. Forests are more valuable for watershed, habitat and recreation than for wood or development. The Maine Woods are no longer mainly for wood.

A Maine Woods National Monument would be the embryo of a Maine Woods National Park that could grow in size and allow the trees to again grow as tall as they used to.

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Why Public Lands

Public lands provide society with goods and services that the private sector is unable to provide.

America’s best idea, national parks—including its highest refinement, wilderness—is contingent on the underlying lands being in public ownership. So are somewhat lower—but nonetheless quite beneficial—refinements such as wild and scenic rivers, national monuments, national recreation areas, national wildlife refuges, national conservation areas, national trails and other specially designated areas.

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