Wouldn’t a breather be good before voting? Surely Americans could use a whoosh of fresh oxygen to the brain about now. A big updraft from the leaf-steeped national forests of Appalachia—even a wake-up splash in their cold trout streams—could do wonders. A mind-expanding view from the Smokies, or possibly Shenandoah National Park, could likewise pump new vigor and love of country into demoralized voters.
As it turns out, this love matters—not least to the land.
Though these iconic American scenes won’t appear on 2016 ballots, we’ll all be voting to retain or lose them, via the candidates we choose.
Will our candidates protect these life-giving commons, as Republican Teddy Roosevelt intended when he set them aside? Or will they get divided like spoils among campaign donors?
A powerful coalition in Congress—their careers funded by corporate giants—already has progressed on a plan to dissolve federal lands, beginning with funding cuts.
National parks have been particularly hard hit. Chopped budgets, pushed by the often-dubbed “anti-parks caucus,” have left these rare land treasures understaffed and minimally protected. The same caucus intends to open these parks to its donors for industrial drilling and logging.
It’s also ready with pre-fab legislation for transferring other federal lands—like national forests—to individual states. Why?
The industry coalitions who crafted this “model legislation” know that cash-strapped states can’t afford to manage these lands. It’s thus expected that states would sell them, or lease their management, to the same industrial interests who devised the whole scheme.
This land-grab is pending one outcome of 2016 elections—a Congress and president more devoted to the art of private deals than protecting public lands.
Other history-changing conservation outcomes hide behind this year’s ballot as well. Water security is one.
Toxic algae blooms have increasingly sucked the life out of U.S. lakes, rivers and coastal waters. The expanding slime-creep—thriving on fertilizers, manure and other runoff contaminants—regularly shuts down regional water supplies, fisheries and entire local economies.
Currently stuck in limbo at the Supreme Court is a Clean Water Rule that would protect 20 million wetland acres, and 2 million miles of streams and a ripple effect of human health, wildlife and economic stability.
Opponents of the Clean Water Rule have funded a vast octopus network of political campaigns. These agrochemical and petroleum giants want a Congress and administrative appointees (to the Supreme Court and EPA) who’ll dismantle water protections—not activate them.
Climate action is also on the hit list for numerous big campaign donors. Fossil fuel interests naturally want the U.S. to drill, mine and burn more fuel—not less.
They make this private goal utterly clear to candidates whose careers they fund. The result is a public logjam that stalls climate action and leaves Americans looking hopelessly divided on the matter, left from right.
But on the actual ground level where Americans live, that division is a myth. When it comes to conservation in general, voters express a surprising and growing agreement.
“Conservation is conservative,” points out ConservAmerica—young Republicans who favor federal climate action.
Recent polls, in fact, find 50 percent of Republicans and a majority of Americans in favor of carbon reductions. A recent Gallup poll (March 2016) likewise indicated that 73 percent of Americans prefer alternative-energy development to more gas and oil.
This common concern flows into other conservation values.
Bipartisan polls have indicated that 95 percent of Americans support federal protection of our national parks. Eighty-one percent support funding for national forests. Eighty-three percent even consider land and water protections a patriotic action.
And that Clean Water Rule currently bottlenecked in high places? A 2015 survey found 80 percent of voters strongly supporting it.
Americans left and right are devoted to this homeland—her rivers, wildlife, mountains and seashores. As Ronald Reagan put it, “Preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense.”
This bipartisan yearning to protect the life of our homeland also reveals rare common ground between us. It seems a waste that this ground was left uncovered by most candidates and news coverage of election 2016.
More focus on conservation values could have reminded polarized or discouraged voters that we’re all in this together—with reasons more enduring than sex scandals and gutter talk to vote this year.
On the ground level, those reasons abound nevertheless, calling any homeland devotee to the polls this year—and then maybe out to the woods to breathe.
By Liza Field, for the Bay Journal News Service
Liza Field is a conservationist, tree-planter and ethics teacher in Southwest Virginia.