By Drew Hanson
|author atop Matterhorn, Oregon, 1992|
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.