The nation’s 405 National Parks welcomed a record-breaking 292 million visits this past year, the most since 1999. Last week was actually National Park Week, in which access to the parks was free to everyone through April 24th. As millions of Americans understand, these beautiful parks provide an invaluable escape from urban congestion, suburban sprawl and from the deadening Walmart-ification of most of the remaining open spaces between this country’s major cities and towns. Until very recently our nation’s hundred-year old National Park System had enjoyed the enthusiastic support of both major political parties, each recognizing the value and wisdom in preserving and protecting these national treasures for the benefit of all Americans and future generations.
But that was before a peculiar and malignant strain of Republicanism was introduced into the body politic, one which behaves like a virus programmed to destroy any hint of the effectiveness and social benefits of government, no matter how much the country is permanently harmed in the process. The Republican Party that has emerged in the last ten years is the most anti-environment political party in the nation’s history, so much that an entire caucus comprised of House and Senate Republicans have made it a legislative goal to erode and ultimately destroy the nation’s public lands, including our National Parks:
A group of 20 senators and representatives has formed a de facto “anti-parks caucus” in Congress and is waging the most significant legislative and ideological challenge to America’s national parks in decades, says a new report released Monday by the Center for American Progress. The analysis finds that this anti-parks caucus is composed of less than five percent of Congress but is responsible for introducing dozens of bills to block the creation of new national parks, end America’s most effective parks program, and sell off public lands.
Prominent Republicans within the de facto caucus include current Texas Senator/ Presidential candidate Ted Cruz, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, Utah Senator Mike Lee and Montana Senator Steven Daines. House members include Nevada Republican Mark Amodei, California Republican Paul Cook, and the current Chair of The House Natural Resource Committee, Utah Republican Robert Bishop. The members of the “Anti-Parks” caucus, all of whom are Republicans, have certain other things in common:
[E]very member of the anti-parks caucus can be described in at least one of the following ways: is member of the Tea Party; was challenged by a Tea Party candidate in a recent primary; or represents a district that is less competitive than average.
This caucus has introduced more than 44 Bills or amendments to remove or undercut protections for public lands, including the nation’s National Parks. These proposed measures would authorize commercial sale of lands to private companies, permit logging and drilling in existing parks and public lands, prohibit the creation of any new parks, and prioritize housing development and building of highways through and within parks over recreational use.
None of this has the support of the American people:
There is no adequate explanation for this erosion in the congressional consensus around national parks and public lands. The transformation does not appear to be a consequence of change in public opinion. Polls indicate that overwhelming majorities of voters support the conservation of national parks and public lands and hold high opinions of the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and other federal land management agencies. Eighty-three percent of Americans, for example, would have a “favorable” reaction to their representative in Congress taking “a strong stand in support of policies to protect and strengthen national parks.”
Nor is there any relationship between these anti-park efforts and any actions taken by the Obama Administration in establishing national monuments under the authority of the Antiquities Act. Those designations have received near universal support from the communities in which they are situated, as well as from the elected officials in those communities. Lastly, there is no evidence that these “land grabs” being advanced in the U.S. Congress are the product of any “grassroots” sentiments among local communities:
“Public land grab efforts almost never rise up from local communities,” according to Jim Caswell, BLM director under President George W. Bush. “They are instead galvanized by partisan politics, mainly at the national level, where the real agenda is wresting public lands from public hands and ultimately privatizing them for nonpublic uses.”
Significantly, eight members of this group participate in something called the “Federal Land Action Group,” an organization specifically created by GOP lawmakers to facilitate the seizure and sale of public lands by states, who would then be expected to turn them over to private industries for drilling and mining in order to pad state budgets already depleted by tax-cutting:
[S]imilar proposals to seize control of America’s public lands have been introduced by right-wing lawmakers in eleven western states — Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming and Washington.
Thanks to support from the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and front groups for the oil industry’s PR giant, Richard Berman, as well as increasing lobbying by the Utah-based American Lands Council, these proposals have now gained prominence at the national level.
The study concludes that the impetus for many within the “caucus” is pure political calculation, to fend off the threat of primary challenges from other “conservatives”—challenges which, of course, are funded and backed by the same gas, oil and mining interests who stand to gain from the sale of these public lands. In this way, so-called “conservatism” is wielded as a weapon in order for these companies to get their hands on these lands:
[I]t seems that these members’ quixotic attacks on national parks and public lands are primarily the result of political calculation—a means of burnishing their conservative credentials. By launching an ideological attack on the government’s authority to protect and preserve lands, waters, and wildlife, the anti-parks caucus is proving to conservative primary voters that it is opposed to the federal government in every way.
As long as a Democrat remains in the White House, these attempts to undermine our Park system and public lands will continue to be resisted and thwarted. If that should change, the “anti-Parks” caucus will be well-positioned to follow through with its strategy of selling off our national treasures to the highest bidder.