Friday, April 15, 2011

Cut the Deficit without Betraying our Founding Fathers

By Drew Hanson
There’s a lot of discussion these days about the deficit. Rightfully so. The United States is in debt to the tune of something over $12,000,000,000,000. That’s twelve trillion dollars. And because our economy is still emerging from the worst economic disaster of the past 80 years, that number is going to get bigger before it gets smaller. It is a problem we need to address.
Unfortunately, too much emphasis is being placed on cuts to what some call “domestic discretionary spending”, that is for things like public education, public radio and television, and public health. These are programs that contribute to the quality of life for nearly all Americans. These are programs that distinguish rich countries from poor countries. These are programs worth fighting for.
Let’s not forget that the United States remains a wealthy nation, perhaps still the most wealthy nation on the planet. Our deficit is a big number but there is great wealth here and we have the exceptional ingenuity to fix the budget issues. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
A sensible approach to cutting the deficit would look at three things: our country’s mission, where the wealth of our nation resides and where we might make government programs more efficient. In this short essay I’ll explore the first: our mission.
The government of these United States has a wonderful mission statement, contained in the preamble of our constitution and written by our founding fathers. It reads, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Given our large deficit, if a federal government program does not directly help to satisfy this mission, we must look at cutting the program.
Two parts of the federal budget that do not directly serve our mission are, first, having far too many American military service personnel stationed overseas and, second, the continued development of many military weapon systems. Military service personnel should be paid fairly and on time, protected with the best safety equipment, given excellent health care and if they are injured in the line of duty provided with health care coverage for life. But stationing them in far off lands, sometimes for decades, does not satisfy the mission of our government as delineated by our founding fathers and is an unnecessary expense we can no longer afford.
America needs to be exceptional for its own citizens again before we can afford the job of global police. It is time other nations police the world and, if necessary, topple brutal dictators.
The trillion dollars we have spent on Iraq was…, well, how do you think it squares with our nation’s mission statement when our own citizens have basic health and education needs? The same holds for recent military operations in Libya. The more than 160 tomahawk cruise missiles we shot at Libya during one week last month cost about $1 million each. Without factoring the other associated costs, that operation dinged US taxpayers over $160,000,000.
The next time you hear someone complain about a million dollars for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, for instance, or other beneficial education or public health project for our own people, point out that our government spent that much on just one bomb in Libya. What’s more in keeping with our government’s mission, securing “the blessings of liberty” for our own people with a public health resource like the Ice Age Trail or attacking a sovereign nation that posed no threat to the citizens of the United States? Especially when we are over twelve trillion dollars in debt, our military should “provide for the common defense” of the citizens of the United States only.
Make no mistake about it, there is plenty of waste in the military weapon systems our government is building. More than a trillion dollars in boondoggles were recently described in the New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2011/03/13/opinion/13opchartimg.html?ref=opinion
Part of insuring “domestic tranquility”, promoting “the general welfare” and securing “the blessings of liberty” is embodied in our public education system, public radio, public television, public health programs and in relatively small programs like our National Park System (including the Ice Age National Scenic Trail), transportation enhancements and the Smithsonian Institution. These are things that give our civilization value and meaning.
It is time for a peace dividend to help pay down the deficit. By bringing home most overseas American military service personnel and by cutting certain military weapon systems we could save trillions of dollars without trashing our constitution and betraying our founding fathers.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

National Park Service Land Acquisition for the Ice Age Trail should begin now

by Drew Hanson

Historical Backdrop
During the 1940s-1950s, Ray Zillmer hounded Wisconsin governors and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR, which at that time was called the Conservation Department) to focus more resources on land acquisition of a corridor of land in the Kettle Moraine. The scenic belt of glacial ridges in southeast Wisconsin was recommended for purchase by the State in a 1934 plan. Zillmer held various leadership positions within the local and state chapters of the Izaak Walton League and was considered an authority on the subject and a persuasive advocate. We have Zillmer to thank for much of the progress on the Kettle Moraine State Forest during those early decades.
But Zillmer realized that completion of the Kettle Moraine conservation corridor (what we might today call a "greenway") was moving too slowly, thus making his broader goal of extending the greenway west along glacial moraines across Wisconsin more difficult. Furthermore, without the land base of a protected conservation corridor, his ultimate vision of a long-distance hiking trail would not be possible. He concluded that the State, for various institutional and political reasons, would not complete this conservation corridor on its own. So in 1958 he enlisted the National Park Service (NPS) and members of Congress to create a new Ice Age National Park.
Just two years later Zillmer died. His proposal was still in its infancy. In his absence the vision for the greenway and trail suffered from mission creep and progress sputtered. By 1980 the effort was back on track but today, over fifty years after Zillmer embarked upon the mission to create the Ice Age National Park, the NPS has acquired only one parcel for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Meanwhile the NPS has successfully acquired thousands of parcels for other national scenic trails around the country.

The Tools
Since 1979 the NPS has acquired over 2,500 parcels of land totaling roughly 111,500 acres along 620 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Since 2002, in a unique partnership arrangement with the U. S. Forest Service, the NPS has also acquired lands to help complete the Florida and Pacific Crest national scenic trails with the purchase of over 50 parcels totaling almost 5,000 acres from willing sellers. All of this land acquisition work was carried out by the NPS National Trails Land Resources Program Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Their work has been outstanding. The expertise gained along these other national scenic trails is critical to successfully completing the Ice Age Trail.
Two years ago, Congress and the President gave NPS the authority to become a full partner in the land acquisition for the Ice Age Trail. With the enactment of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act the NPS now has the legal go-ahead to acquire lands for the Ice Age Trail directly from willing sellers. But during these past two years, NPS has done little to assign full-time NPS staff from the Martinsburg office to the Ice Age Trail to begin the task of acquiring parcels from willing sellers. Even the recently designated New England National Scenic Trail is beginning to benefit from land acquisition work by the NPS Martinsburg office.
In passing the law giving NPS this authority for the Ice Age Trail, did Congress and the President intend for NPS to not use the authority? I don’t think so.

The Proposal
About 500 miles of Ice Age Trail still need to be protected. To relocate unsafe connecting road-walk routes to off-road trail, to stay ahead of changing land uses and to allow the Trail to take its rightful place among the great national scenic trails, the federal partner needs to have an active role in the protection of the nationally significant resources that are found along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
The project is not daunting. Fewer miles and fewer parcels need to be purchased to complete the Ice Age Trail than were needed to complete the Appalachian Trail. Plus the Ice Age Trail has able partners, including the DNR, to hopefully continue to acquire other Trail lands. So to get started, NPS needs a Focus Area.
Proposed NPS Focus Area
The Trail corridor between the City of Madison and Village of Cross Plains would make an excellent Focus Area and starting point for NPS. This ten-mile segment contains a mere 20 parcels in need of protection. Located between Woods Road and Black Earth Creek, acquiring these 20 parcels would complete land acquisition along this segment and allow construction of a premier, off-road segment of national scenic trail.
Resources of this proposed Focus Area include the 156-acre property already owned by NPS, a 174-acre property owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a representative portion of the geologic region known as the Driftless Area, 500 million year old rock outcrops, a cave and portions of glacial moraines. There is strong public support for protection of these lands and the risk of private development creates urgency for protection.
Please join me in calling on the National Park Service to begin a land acquisition program for the Ice Age Trail by contacting members of Congress and the National Park Service.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Mountain Majesty Bias

By Drew Hanson

Preface

author atop Matterhorn, Oregon, 1992
I need to be clear about something from the start: I love mountains. I've spent months backpacking in them. I did three weeks of mountaineering in the John Muir Wilderness through one of my favorite mountain ranges--the Sierras. I've backpacked three times in Glacier National Park, two times at Mt. Rainier, summited two of the Three Sisters in Oregon and without boring you further suffice it to say many others. I disclose this at the beginning not to proudly pound on my chest but to make it clear that I am not against mountains nor am I naively unfamiliar with them.

On the other hand, many people think mountainous areas are "wastelands." My grandfather can't understand why I "waste" my time visiting mountains to hike. Like many Americans, he has never hiked on one. But I suspect he and others living in "flatter" landscapes have a deeper understanding of scenery. Out of this I discovered that scenery should not be measured by elevation alone.

The Bias

The Conservation Movement, like the Labor Movement, Civil Rights Movement or Suffrage Movement, has a rich history that includes certain tendencies and biases. These biases are most on display at the large national conservation groups like Audubon, Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) or what is sometimes collectively called, Big Green. One of the currents running through the history of the Conservation Movement and Big Green is a bias I call mountain majesty bias.

For example, a few years ago, there was a large property in New Mexico that was offered for sale to the federal government to add to Bandelier National Monument. The Big Green groups and National Park Service all got behind it, pushing Congress with all the rhetoric they could muster to allocate the $101 million needed to buy it. Big Green quoted John Muir and other conservation greats and found a couple rare species on the property to justify why this property was so critical to America. After a couple years of public relations blitz in which the mainstream press eventually jumped on board, they got the needed votes in Congress, the money was allocated and now the Baca Ranch is owned by the federal government as conservation and recreation land for all of us. It sounds like a beautiful place and I plan to hike there one day.

It’s a tried and true recipe used by Big Green countless times and loaded with mountain majesty bias. If you interview conservationists, especially those who support Big Green, I suspect you will discover that quite a few unconsciously subscribe to the following logic: lots of elevation (i.e. mountains and canyons) equals scenery that should be protected. The converse to this line of logic is: flatter landscapes are not scenic and hence receive less conservation attention.

Look at a map of federal lands in America. Where are nearly all of them? Most are in the west. And where do the loudest calls of “sell federal land” and “we don’t need to be spending any more tax dollars buying land” come from? Local people living in the west. Ever heard of the Sagebrush Rebellion?

So it’s hard for me to sympathize with Big Green when they make noise to have this mountain or that canyon in the west purchased by the federal government. If the Conservation Movement were concerned about filling gaps in America's existing conservation lands and serving a host of other societal benefits, such as undoing some of the damage done to imperiled ecosystems (i.e. savannas, prairies, barrens, wetlands) and economies of the Mississippi River basin, we need to look outside of mountainous areas for places to focus our conservation attention. It is long overdue for the Conservation Movement to turn its focus to America's mid-section to make it our nation’s highest conservation priority to protect farmland, great river systems, wetlands, prairies and a system of protected corridors with footpaths through them that includes the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

$101 million to purchase land for the Ice Age Trail is unheard of. But for those of us who know the Trail, we know that $101 million would forever protect a couple hundred miles of it. Imagine an additional couple hundred miles of Ice Age Trail for the 18 million Americans who live within a two hour drive to enjoy! But the forces of Big Green and the mainstream press are not ready to help. To Big Green the Ice Age Trail has no mountains, so what’s the point?

Mountains add to the great diversity of landscapes in America. But the absence of mountains does not mean that a landscape is uninteresting or inferior or unworthy of a (thousand mile!) hike or other conservation attention. The mid-section of the United States is home to some magnificent scenery!  Think about it the next time Big Green asks you to urge your member of Congress to support protection of xyz mountain or abc canyon. Then think about how long it has been since Big Green did as much to help the Ice Age Trail or just about any place in the Midwest.

Postscript

As an aside, at one point or another I was a member of all the Big Green groups including sixteen years as a paid member of NPCA. I read virtually every page of every magazine they sent me and sometimes responded to their “calls to action”. I wrote to NPCA at least a dozen times during those sixteen years asking that they please give even the slightest bit of attention, either in their magazine or in the halls of Congress, to my neighborhood National Park area–the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. But it was not to be. My membership in NPCA came to an end after they published an article about all the great National Park areas along the Great Lakes but failed to make any mention of the Ice Age Trail. I sent NPCA a farewell letter but NPCA’s misunderstanding of the Ice Age Trail stems from more than just mountain majesty bias. I described it in detail at http://pedestrianview.blogspot.com/2013/10/farewell-prejudiced-npca.html