Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

Saving wilderness from the land grabbers



When I contemplate Central Coast wilderness sites such as the Carrizo Plain or Condor Ridge, I feel a communion with the earth and our history.

But when the Trump administration and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gaze upon our American birthright, all they see are dollar signs.

Zinke has proposed dramatically shrinking the size of national monuments and opening them for mining and drilling. Ironically, Carrizo Plain could be on the chopping block even though private citizens and the Carrizo Plain Conservancy recently added 42 acres to the monument.

Zinke also proposes to more than double the peak-season entrance fees at our most popular national parks, which will effectively declare these legacy treasures off-limits to our poorest citizens.

But we can fight the land grab.

Protecting our shrinking natural resources is about protecting the soul of America. Scratch the heart of anyone passionate about protecting wilderness and you will find someone whose seminal experience in nature helped shape their understanding of the world and their place in it. In fact, the land is part of our American psyche, mythos, and heritage.

Do you remember your first deep connection with nature?

When I was 10, my place to read and dream was in the arms of an old acacia tree in my back yard. Those fragrant blossoms still transport me to that peace, calm, and bond with the earth.

Forty-three years later, my mother-daughter book group realized life-long lessons and values when we took our five girls on their first backpacking trip in the Sierras. It was not an easy hike. We battled legions of mosquitoes; lugged too-heavy packs; and endured fatigue, blisters, and extreme discomfort.

But we also found the courage to ford ice-cold streams and summit Half Dome. We sang on the trail and bonded deeply with each other and the natural world. Cresting our first pass, I caught up with my 14-year-old daughter. Tears were streaming down her face. "It's so hard," she sobbed, "but so beautiful!"

"I am still inspired by that first backpack," Hannah said. "I found nature magical and even scary, but that trip instilled a work ethic. I may have been young, but I got to know myself as a strong, tenacious woman—I discovered an emotional and spiritual grounding."

Committed to wilderness, U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), too, has vivid memories of his experiences with nature as a Boy Scout and growing up in a little mining town in Arizona. "We camped and hiked, and every Easter my extended family gathered at the Santa Maria River. Open spaces and the natural environment have brought a special value and privilege to my life.

"When I look at our extraordinary lands here and across the nation, I know in my heart that it is my responsibility, our responsibility, to do everything possible to conserve them for future generations, including my 2-year-old grandson."

This month, Carbajal joined with Sen. Kamala Harris to introduce the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, which would designate 250,000 acres of public land in the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument as protected wilderness.

Congress alone can designate federal land as wilderness, ensuring the "primeval" character of these resources. Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or the Fish and Wildlife Service, public wilderness is open for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, rafting, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, bird watching, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, rock climbing, caving, and ecological research.

By the way, grazing and mineral activity are allowed on already established claims in Carrizo Plain National Monument.

In all, the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act would preserve new wilderness areas. It would protect Condor Ridge and Black Mountain as new scenic areas, and deem the Condor Trail a National Recreation Trail.

But preservation of public lands is about more than safeguarding scenic areas.

"It's vitally important to protect our cultural resources and to recognize the ecological value of our public lands, our public trust," Carbajal said. "Diverse ecosystems help preserve air quality, promote biodiversity, protect water supplies, and ensure wildlife habitat."

Meanwhile, Zinke—who is advised largely by oil and mining industry cronies—is pursuing an agenda that prioritizes energy development, including hydraulic fracturing, a technique known to poison water and add to global warming. Right now, he's working privately with energy industry representatives to ensure the lowest possible royalty payments for use of public land.

In late October, Zinke released an "Energy Burdens Report," which identifies "agency actions that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources, with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources."

Clearly, Zinke sees his job not as caretaking of our public lands, but as commodifying them.

The word "primeval," always conjures the opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous American poem, "Evangeline":

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, /

Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, /

Stand like Druids of eld ...

The Central Coast Heritage Protection Act draws on the values of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. It can ensure that my grandchildren—and yours—have the opportunity to draw their own inspiration from our uniquely American open space, our ancient, magnificent Druids of mountains, rivers, forests, oceans, and plains. Δ

Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at

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