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 resource 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.  In contrast, at least some might question the wisdom of our forebears who plowed, drilled, strip-mined, clearcut and otherwise "developed" just about everything else in the Lower 48.

As I observed in Hedges and Priorities, energy we leave in the ground does not disappear.  When we choose not to develop oil, gas or coal now, we preserve for future generations the option to make different policy judgments in light of the existential conditions they will face.  If they have solved climate change challenges, if they have failed to acquire sufficient alternative energy sources to sustain life or civilization despite their very best efforts, if their backs are against the wall, energy we choose to leave in the ground will still be there.  We will have done our part, on our watch; the rest is up to them. 

In fragile ecosystems like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, development is a one-way proposition on the scale of human existence.  Nature will heal itself, but is unlikely to do so in the span of our history as a species or even within the ethical time horizon that I discussed in Generations.

Assuming that the Refuge in fact holds significant oil and gas resources, there is complete certainty that they will be finite just like all the other fossil fuels in the world.  We can debate how many years of production would be possible and how many weeks or months of our country’s, or the world’s, energy needs would be satisfied as a result.  But there is no question that it has Limits.  The same goes for the short-term financial benefit to Alaskans, to the United States, and even to the energy companies and the traders who buy and sell their stock every day on global markets. 

Oil prices matter, especially in Alaska.  The state's economy is diversified as never before, with high contributions from tourism, fishing, mining, forestry, the military and other industries in addition to oil and gas development, but government revenues are not:  90% of state government revenues come from taxes on oil.   It is petroleum that allows Alaskans the rare luxury of not depending on income or sales taxes to finance government services.  Like the inevitable exhaustion of fossil fuels, this privilege too is inherently unsustainable in the long run.

An anomaly arises from Alaska's dependence on oil-based revenues.  Normally, under classic supply-and-demand principles, the owner of an asset would want to sell more of it when prices are high, and less when they are low.  However, the fiscal dependence actually creates a greater political incentive, even if economically irrational, to sell (develop) more oil and gas when prices are low.  As revenues decline, and holes are blown in state budgets, there is pressure to sell more, seeking to prop up the total revenue stream even at less-efficient price points – which can only shorten the time before the finite resource is exhausted. 

This political anomaly explains much of the breathless rhetoric used by Alaska officials to denounce the Obama administration's request that Congress designate key areas of the Arctic Refuge, including its coastal plain, as wilderness. 

To keep some perspective on this issue, it is worth noting that the current proposals would do nothing to reduce Alaska's oil and gas production from what is available today.  Rather, they would make permanent the existing status quo.  Under protection already provided by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, there is no oil and gas drilling going on in the Refuge now, including its coastal plain, nor can there ever be without express Congressional approval.

The political question is whether to make ANILCA's protection permanent, to leave it in a continued state of limbo, or to revoke it.  The President has proposed to Congress that it make the current protection permanent, which would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a legacy for us all on this majestic scale.

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.

The author with "boots on the ground" in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The author with "boots on the ground" in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Post-script:  

The passage of time has made the historic preservation of icons like the Grand Canyon seem familiar and obvious, almost inevitable, but they were not always perceived that way.  In The Wilderness Warrior, for example, Douglas Brinkley documents the "fierce" opposition to President Roosevelt's original designation of the Grand Canyon as a National Monument in 1908, which bought valuable time before Congress made it a national park 11 years later.  

At the time, many considered the President's action a blatant instance of executive overreach, of the national government overruling the local penchant for development.  In his excellent biography, Brinkley describes Roosevelt's view that "the resources of the Arizona Territory belonged not to local residents only, but to all Americans.  Arizonans would have to shake off ignorance and accept that the Grand Canyon was a national treasure." (756)

The notion that we don't look back now and curse Teddy Roosevelt for designating the Grand Canyon as a National Monument is not an original observation.  I am sure I have read something very similar to this comment somewhere before, perhaps using almost the same words.  Can a reader point me to the source so I can make appropriate attribution? 

*****

This week's post continues my Small Bites series exploring principles that are foundational to my analysis of public policy issues.  See LimitsGenerations and Hedges and Priorities.