By Donella Meadows
–September 3, 1992–
One of the many performance records George Bush would rather we didn’t focus on between now and the coming election is the degradation under his stewardship of our national lands.
The operating principles of the Bush and Reagan administrations are being revealed by an increasing number of National Park Service and Forest Service employees who have been given orders to allow private abuses of public lands, and who have resisted. Consequently they have been defamed, transferred, or fired. Now they are telling their stories in public.
One of the most impressive of these whistleblowers is Lorraine Mintzmyer, former director of the Rocky Mountain Region of the National Park Service. Last April she retired after 32 years in the Park Service, to avoid further “punishment and humiliation.” A month later she delivered a speech at Yellowstone that has been reverberating in environmental circles ever since.
Picture a doughnut, said Mintzmyer, the hole being a national park, the doughnut being a ring of surrounding public land. For example, Yellowstone Park consists of 2,2 million acres in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, part of an ecosystem of 18 million acres, 80 percent of which is owned by you, me, all of us.
Mining, energy development, logging, grazing, housing are forbidden or strongly regulated in the park, less so in the doughnut. There are twelve thousand mining claims, for example, in the greater Yellowstone area. One of them is two miles northeast of the park border and calls for two open-pit mines, one underground mine, a mill, a tailings pile, and a cyanide leach system. Near another edge of the park a new-age group called the Church Universal and Triumphant has bought a former ranch of Malcolm Forbes and is planning a geothermal development. (In every part of the world where geothermal energy has been tapped, it has PERMANENTLY destroyed nearby active geysers.)
Just as the Reagan and Bush administrations failed to regulate the banking industry, so they failed to regulate the private interests who want access to valuable public resources. “There is simply too much taking,” says Mintzmyer. “The parks are being choked to death by the actions of … special interests and their political patrons…. Water-borne wastes flow out of the doughnut into the parks, the winds carry noxious chemicals out of the doughnut and into the parks.”
“Each user of that doughnut seeks just one little favor from a congressman every few years, wants the Department of the Interior to loosen up one little law, or writes to the president and asks him to kill just one little document. In the end, they are slowly destroying our parks.”
One of the casualties of the steady corruption has been information. Reports are falsified or buried. Mintzmyer says, “It is impossible to know whether the base-level data were tinkered with…. Any study after 1983, and definitely after 1988, must be suspected of being scientifically or professionally unreliable.”
There is nothing new about politicians helping friends to raid commonly owned wealth. What is new in the past decade is the weakening of the federal agencies charged with preventing that from happening. Says Mintzmyer: “The politicians, congressmen, and executives have … taken over the upper parts of the agency…. There is no longer any abiity on the part of the agency to protect its lower level people. They can be targeted and neutralized without real resistance.”
The Forest Service is a main target. Clearcuts in the Targhee National Forest go right up to the border of Yellowstone Park, creating a straight-line edge that can be seen from outer space. Logging in many national forests is proceeding at rates well above the sustainable cuts mandated by law. Overcutting, hidden by what one Wilderness Society spokesman calls “a carefully orchestrated Forest Service coverup,” is now coming to light in forest after forest.
Handouts to logging companies cost us not only our forests, their wildlife, and their protection of water tables and streams, but also our tax money. The Forest Service charges below-market fees for timber concessions and obligingly builds logging roads at public expense. The network of federal logging roads is now longer than the interstate highway system — 6600 miles, with another 900 planned. The Forest Service earns from timber concessions 34 cents for every dollar it spends supporting loggers. In the Yellowstone area in 1990 it lost $12.6 million.
Mintzmyer: “A bunch of special interest people … meet with three or four congressional delegations, … get the assistant secretaries from two agencies to attend, … have no invitations, nothing in writing, no minutes, no notes…. It’s done on the phone, in closed, private meetings, and over lunch.”
There is also a direct channel through the president’s Council on Competitiveness, chaired by Dan Quayle, which exists to waive federal regulations for select corporations. The Council refuses to release information about its operations, even to Congress.
In her speech Lorraine Mintzmyer listed measures to protect the national lands, including proper accounting for economic and ecological losses, and a “sunshine act” that would forbid private meetings between influence peddlers and special interests.
The best protection, of course, would be to elect a chief executive who implements the law, as he is constitutionally bound to do — and who is not inclined to give away public assets for private benefit.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992