We The People have a long history of preserving public land for the enjoyment and education of all of us, and for, we have been lately learning, the health of this whirling blob of mud we call home. Yet, we are destroying indigenous families and forests to make room to grow quinoa in South America, and palm oil in Asia.
Here at home, the Republican platform calls for the federal government to get out of the business of owning public lands. There is profit in those forests and canyons – oil, natural gas, coal and lumber are waiting to be harvested by industries that have little concern for the health of our grandkids. (I wonder whether those folks might be interested in giving up the thousands of military reservations we non-military peeps are not allowed to visit. I would love to visit that cave dug into the rock a few miles from my home.)
The party’s credo calls for turning national parks over to the states, which then would sell them to the highest bidders. Unfortunately, it’s a one-time financial influx. Once we have sold the land, and cut the trees and planted drill rigs, there is nothing left to sell. Some states, Pennsylvania among them, will “lease” the public forests to drillers and pipeline builders, allowing companies to amass far more in profits than the meager fees they have paid the taxpayers. And when they have extracted all the goodies, they will move on.
More than a century ago, another Pennsylvania natural resource industrialist learned the same thing. Gifford Pinchot’s father amassed considerable wealth cutting timber from Pennsylvania’s forests, moving the railroad to new cutting areas, and clearing more mountainside. Finally, during the late 1800s, the father of a future governor of the Commonwealth and first head of the U.S. Forest Service discovered watching mountains wash away in rainstorms while waiting for trees to grow was too expensive.
In 2008, a paper-making company decided paying taxes on forest land while it waited for the trees to replenish themselves to harvestable size was too much to ask. It put out the For Sale sign, $13 million for 2,500 acres. In short order, developers began to float ideas for high-dollar homes on the hills. Had they been successful, the woods would have been replaced by five-acre home sites and a connecting web of paved roads and water pipelines.
The trees that filter the air and help fresh water replenish the supply for residents in the lowlands would have given way to several fresh and wastewater treatment plants. Developers would have extracted tons of money from the county, and residents old and new would have been forced to dig a little deeper in their pants to pay the cost of living along streets named for the birds and deer that no longer lived there.
Fortunately, county voters, by a two-to-one margin, approved paying the paper company and preserving the forest.
I have taken my granddaughters hiking in the Michaux State Forest. They have waded in creeks, and watched frogs where seepage makes a wet spot on the ground and becomes one of the county’s most valuable trout streams.
But I also have wandered in Loyalsock and other forests in the state’s northern tier – forests sliced and diced into roadways for truckloads of drilling equipment and chemicals and compressor stations and miles of plastic pipeline – infrastructure replacing forest with fuel production. But at least We The People still own the land.
And We the People are the only ones who can protect it. It is our home.