Tundra Land Grab

Tundra Land Grab

The Alaska House of Representatives approved a bill earlier this month that orders the United States government to hand over most federal land in Alaska to the state by the end of next year.  This would include national monuments, preserves and refuges, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  But the federal government could keep its national parks.

The tundra land grab has been tried before.  A similar attempt was made in 1982, prompting the Attorney General of Alaska to issue a formal legal opinion that the legislation was unconstitutional.  Bills of this nature are clearly unconstitutional -- and a colossal waste of legislative time and taxpayer resources.  

It is important to focus on the public policy merits of issues involving land use, resource extraction and development, conservation and wilderness --  all of which have pros and cons that can be reasonably debated -- and not get distracted by political sound bites about sovereignty, nullification and states' rights that are poorly grounded in history and law.  

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Sovereignty

Sovereignty

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is owned by and for the benefit of all of the citizens of the United States.  When the State of Alaska entered the federal union, it selected more than 100 million acres of land and was granted additional acreage to support education and medical trusts.  The lands in what is now the Arctic Refuge were not granted to the State.  Despite the overwrought rhetoric of politicians, Alaska state sovereignty is simply not relevant to the current proposals that Congress designate critical areas of the Refuge, including its coastal plain, as wilderness. 

Local politicians and business interests will always be tempted by the siren songs of temporary employment and tax revenues.  This is an inherent structural bias that tilts local interests in favor of development.  Which is precisely why long-term national interests need to be protected by federal decision-making about the lands that we all own together. 

Decisions about where to develop, and where to protect, can be reasonably debated.  But, please:  keep the red herring of state sovereignty out of it.

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Legacy

Legacy

All those in favor of an open pit mine in the Grand Canyon, please raise your hands!  Really?  No one?  How about fracking in Yellowstone? 

We have rarely set aside areas of potential development for esthetic, cultural, human rights or similar reasons.  In the limited, but iconic, instances where we have done so, such as Yellowstone National Park (1872) and Grand Canyon National Park (1919), very few of our contemporary citizens look back on the action now with deep regret. 

ANILCA already protects the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge from development.  The political question is whether our legacy will be to make that protection permanent, to leave it in a state of limbo, or to revoke it.  I am fairly certain what the visionaries who protected Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon would have to say about that, and I am equally sure that future generations will thank us if we follow their example..

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Hedges and Priorities

Hedges and Priorities

At least with currently imaginable technologies, we will continue to need the high energy density of petroleum to power massively consumptive products like jet engines.  Other power sources just don’t pack enough punch to put a plane in the air and keep it there. 

This puts a near-term premium on using other energy forms, such as electricity generated by coal or nuclear fuels, or even less dense renewable sources like solar and wind generation, to power other uses that don’t have such massive requirements.  Establishing priorities along these lines strikes me as a blindingly obvious hedge against having our collective tank run dry.

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Limits

Limits

We have reached this point of civilization through exploitation of resources, especially petroleum and mineral extraction.  We started tens of thousands of years ago with the transformation of copper and bronze into tools and weapons, and we now use rare earth minerals in cell phones.  Power consumption is everywhere and permeates everything we do, every day, even in the most remote corners of the earth.

Most of these resources are nonrenewable in any practical sense.  We can debate how long they will last, when “peak oil” will or has been reached, but not the basic point that they are finite.

Global CO2 and other greenhouse gases have risen to levels that are impacting the environment.  As with the finitude of fossil fuels, we can debate when the tipping point to a real climate crisis will be reached (if it hasn’t been already), but we cannot responsibly doubt that there are limits to the earth’s carrying capacity for greenhouse gases without severe implications for the future quality of human life on the planet.

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Companions in the Wild

Companions in the Wild

I admire and respect solo hikers and others who desire to be alone in wilderness.  For me, however, it is through social interaction with wilderness that we make it a human encounter, becoming not simply passive observers of the wild, but active participants in it.  In doing so, we connect with a deep and integral part of our own nature, rekindling bonds of culture and community that our ancestors have experienced since the dawn of time.   

We can only hope that our descendants will have similar opportunities to come together in the shared experience of wilderness and to give full expression to our natural place in it.  If we allow that to slip from our grasp, an important part of our human heritage will be lost as well.

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