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“Nature doesn’t care if you’re gay,” I’ll often hear in reaction to articles by myself or my outdoorsy LGBTQ peers. And it’s true: Nature doesn’t care if I’m gay.

But people do.

A few ago, I finished a world-record journey to all 419 National Park Service sites. For three years nonstop, I lived in a van, hiked trails everywhere from American Samoa to the Arctic Circle, and accomplished an outdoors journey no human had ever done before. But comments about the trip have included things like, “Well now I need to be careful in the bathroom at national parks,” and, “Why do you have to shove your lifestyle down our throats!” A sponsor terminated our partnership halfway through the project, saying over the phone and in writing that I was doing too much LGBTQ outreach.

A camping website called The Dyrt posted an interview with me on Facebook featuring a thumbnail photo in which I’m holding a rainbow flag in front of Yosemite’s Tunnel View. The comments were so inflammatory that the publishers decided just hours later it was inappropriate to leave it up. They later denounced the hateful comments and reposted the story with a call for civility—which was unheeded. A rainbow flag incited such anger from a community of nature-lovers that they ignored what so many outdoor enthusiasts have told me is their “dream trip.”

This happened in June, of all months, the one month when my social media feels like an explosion of rainbows due to worldwide Pride festivals. When historic anniversaries like the Stonewall uprising and marriage-equality decisions are remembered. And when seemingly every corporation, from Listerine to Disney, is releasing products that celebrate these culture-changing moments.

Yet, as the rest of America chases this “Pink Dollar,” the outdoor recreation industry seems less interested in the near $1 trillion in purchasing power of the U.S. LGBTQ community. Or the shift in culture evidenced by the fact that the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2019 “Pride Night” was the team’s highest attended game in seven years. Or—as I can attest after seeing Tinder photos from every corner of the United States during my parks journey—the vast market of gay men hoping to look cute in athletic clothes on top of a mountain.

Some in the LGBTQ community argue that corporate Pride promotions are simply “rainbow washing” to increase profits. But as someone who didn’t meet an openly gay adult until I left my home state of Nebraska at age 19, while 14 years later can get married in any state across the U.S., I’ve seen the progress our culture has made. And I believe companies had a large part in it.

In an age when corporations are afforded some of the same rights as individuals, financial power plays a significant role in our society, from politics to cultural acceptance. When Marriott, a company started and owned by Mormons, is willing to sponsor Pride festivals and has an entire annual #LoveTravels campaign aimed at making LGBTQ travelers feel welcome, even people in so-called “flyover states” are influenced by ideas more progressive than they might see at home.

In the same way, the outdoor recreation industry has the power to help build a future where LGBTQ outdoors fans are seen the same as everyone else. In that world, other nature enthusiasts’ reactions to a photo of a flag-bearing hiker would be the same whether it was an American flag or a rainbow one. If outdoor companies follow the example of the rest of corporate America, they could use their influence in a way that both helps their bottom line and improves the lives of outdoor lovers.

As civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman said, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.” The backing of inclusive values by outdoor brands will help nature enthusiasts like the Eagle Scout who wrote me via Instagram to share that he’d never had an outdoorsy gay role model until learning about my national parks record. Better representation will invite more people to experience our great outdoors. While LGBTQ discrimination still causes vastly higher rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth than their straight peers, this moment in time gives me hope.

When I started my national parks journey in 2016, the outdoor recreation industry had never had a Pride Month ad. Now, several companies and nonprofits sponsor an annual LGBTQ Outdoor Summit; an outdoors-themed drag queen is commanding attention from brands, and REI (which I work with to help promote LGBTQ inclusion in the outdoors) received the Kenji Award at 2019’s Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in part for their “Outside With Pride” apparel.

This promotions and inclusion work of the past three years has expanded the tent of who sees themselves in outdoors culture, meaning we’ve come one step closer to a goal: A hope that one day, the readers of an article about a gay man visiting all of America’s national parks won’t care about the sexual orientation of the adventurer. After all, if nature doesn’t care that I’m gay, why do people?

Adventurer Mikah Meyer was recently named one of NBC’s “Pride 50” for groundbreaking work with LGBTQ communities. He is a regular speaker on topics ranging from epic outdoors experiences to the benefits of inclusion for businesses and individuals. He is based in Minneapolis. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

I try to be diplomatic. I really do.

When I was cleaning up graffiti deposited by an embarrassed-looking family, and the father muttered, “Writing your name on the rocks is an irresistible impulse,” I did not give into my own irresistible impulse and whap him alongside the head with my water bottle. I smiled and said something about how a national park belongs to everyone, and it is up to everyone to care for it properly.

When someone drops a tissue on the trail, I do not snatch it up and stuff it into the litterer’s ear. I say sweetly, “Oh, miss, you seem to have dropped something.” Then I stand there holding it out until she shamefacedly turns around to claim it.

However, the other day, I was hiking uphill at the end of a long day. I had (politely) mentioned to three other people that their loud external speakers were (a) disturbing nesting birds; (b) banned in a wilderness area; and (c) grossing me out. A young lady walked past with her device blaring, and I snapped, “Turn it up! I don't think they can hear it at Three-Mile Resthouse!”

My husband patted my arm and murmured, “I think someone is getting a little bit tired.”

I remember the halcyon days when someone talking on a cellphone was irritating. Now it is speakers. Loud speakers. Blaring out “boom boomda m#f#k#r shoot the b#h, boom boomda” all the way down the trail.

The “considerate” ones have it turned to a volume that you only notice as you’re passing or following. But too many seem to revel in how many echoes they can produce off neighboring cliffs.

What, I wonder, happens when a rap person meets a pop aficionado on the trail? Do they face off with a battle of the speakers? The noises certainly do not cancel each other out.

I would love to nail the speakers with a squirt bottle as they pass, but, alas, they are weatherproof. I suppose one could accidently bump into the irritant, knock the speaker loose from its moorings and inadvertently drop a large rock on it, but that might seem suspicious.

Drones are noisy as well as intrusive. We were sitting on the edge of an isolated cliff watching the birds fly by when a racket resembling a chainsaw intruded. A drone hovered overhead. The birds egressed. Fearless Leader clambered up the hill to inform the miscreants that drones are prohibited in national parks. The man said, “Oh, I didn't know that.” The young son piped up, “Yeah, you did, Dad. We saw that sign back there!” The kid obviously missed the memo to not snitch on dad.

Mom, nonplussed, demanded, “Why?” Fearless Leader was up to the challenge.

“We were just watching flocks of birds whirling around. They are gone now. The Park Service regards natural quiet as a quality we wish to retain. An artificial sound, such as a drone, does not fit into that narrative. Then, too, if the battery fails or the wind shears, the drone can crash into the cliffs, which leaves plastic debris and hazardous chemicals.”

Mom huffed off while the hikers in our group expressed awe. “That was magnificent,” one said. “I was tearing up.”

“Of course,” I added, “it would have been more satisfying to bring the thing down with a BB gun and stomp on it.”

“Agreed, but this was equally effective.”

It is a matter of differences in philosophy. Those of us who listen to the susurration of the wind or the gentle gawks of the ravens will never understand anyone who needs tunes badly enough to drag them along. Those for whom silence is oppressive do not understand why some of us value it.

There are individuals who hike to an isolated cliff top to watch birds careen by and clouds drift through. There are others who seek that same isolation so they may break the law to obtain a nifty picture to post on Facebook. What is really difficult to understand is their desire to—no, their insistence on—loudly sharing their choice of music. Ear buds are cheap; use them.

Maybe that is the answer: I shall invest in a bag of cheap ear buds. The next time I have to listen to “Baby Boy,” I can whip them out. “Obviously, you cannot afford a pair of these, so take mine.”

Dear me, that does sound a bit snarky. Maybe someone is getting a little tired.

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She works at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Published in Community Voices

For most of us, birthdays are happy occasions, when friends and family pay fond attention, lavishing us with gifts to prove that we are loved and valued. For one day, our foibles are accepted with a smile—or at least diplomatically ignored.

The National Park Service’s 100th birthday this August has been less joyful. In fact, anyone paying attention to the news might think that the proud agency, which oversees 412 units across more than 80 million acres, has had its centennial celebration ruined by a series of uncomfortable revelations.

In January, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report detailing two decades of sexual harassment by boatmen in the Grand Canyon’s river district and the failure of senior officials to adequately respond. In March, the agency abolished the river district and announced that it would increase sexual-harassment training and conduct an agency-wide survey to ascertain how widespread the problem is.

Then, in February, Chief Jon Jarvis was reprimanded by his bosses at Interior for publishing a book on the parks through a private company without federal approval.

Meanwhile, the Park Service remains hobbled by byzantine bureaucratic policies that have contributed to its struggle to hire a workforce that reflects the nation’s racial diversity, despite decades of “we’re-on-it” rhetoric. Today, 83 percent of its 23,000 employees are white—no more racially diverse than it was a decade ago.

The agency also lacks an adequate funding base, not only to maintain current operations, but to address the crumbling, neglected infrastructure at parks around the country. Annual appropriations from Congress, which make up about 88 percent of the Park Service’s roughly $3 billion budget, declined 8 percent between 2005 and 2014 after adjusting for inflation, according to a December report from the Government Accountability Office. The funding crisis is so bad that the agency is considering corporate sponsorships, a move that has some worried that “America’s Best Idea” will end up auctioned off to the highest bidder: Arches National Park brought to you by McDonald’s.

It's enough bad news that some park officials probably wish that they’d planned a low-key event at some remote park in, say, South Dakota, rather than the yearlong media-saturated, Subaru-sponsored celebration that is keeping the agency in the public eye.

But I’m glad the Park Service went big on its centennial—and I’m even glad that its dirty laundry is getting an airing. After all, birthdays are more than just celebrations; they’re also a time for reflection and redirection. The fact that we are having such deep, passionate discussions about our national parks and their problems is proof that they are loved and that they matter.

Besides, there are some bright spots: The agency continues to lead the way in helping us understand how climate change effects ecological systems; over the past five years, its new climate response program has studied climate change impacts on national parks from Acadia in Maine to American Samoa in the Pacific. Director Jarvis has also convened a panel of independent scientists, who, in a report called Revisiting Leopold, urge the agency to stop trying to preserve each park as a “vignette of primitive America” and “act immediately, boldly and decisively” to prepare for volatile conditions, including severe wet seasons and deep droughts. That is forward-thinking all land agencies need to embrace.

The Park Service has expanded its vision beyond protecting gorgeous landscapes to embracing parks and monuments, some brand new, that spotlight America’s unique cultural heritage in all its remarkable, complex and occasionally ugly glory—places like Cesar Chavez National Monument in California’s Central Valley and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park in Maryland.

The centennial may not go down as the Park Service’s happiest birthday celebration ever, but hopefully it will be the most memorable and transformative one. We can all raise a glass to that.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in Community Voices

On June 21, a new petition surfaced on the White House’s website. In large bold letters, it reads: “Fire National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. We deserve a director who will uphold the agency's integrity.”

During its centennial year, the agency has fallen under increased scrutiny for not taking swifter action to address a culture of sexual harassment and employee misconduct. The petition was started by a group of recreation and environmental activists in the San Francisco Bay Area and launched a week after members of Congress on the House Committee on Oversight and Congressional Reform grilled Jarvis for failing to take enough steps to stop sexual harassment and hostile working conditions that female employees faced in the Grand Canyon, Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore and other parks.

Last month, the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General released a report documenting a pattern of harassment at Canaveral, such as unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate comments by a supervisor. As the Park Service’s second sexual harassment investigation in six months, it prompted the House Oversight and Congressional Reform Committee hearing on June 14. The committee condemned Jarvis for not firing perpetrators and for not following through with disciplinary actions the agency outlined in response to the year’s first investigation of sexual harassment, which was released in January and focused on the Grand Canyon.

“Discipline and punishment is one thing; hand-slapping is another,” Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said during the hearing. “I would hardly call what’s taking place discipline.”

Jarvis said he had formed a committee of high-level executives to handle the issue. He dismissed the idea that the agency wasn’t taking women’s reports seriously. He also said that firing a federal worker is nearly impossible, which is part of the problem.

“I don’t believe it’s fear; I believe (victims) don’t think action will be taken,” Jarvis said in the hearing. “I appreciate the reports from the Office of Inspector General, and (with) the actions we are going to take and are taking, we are going to see more reporting.”

After the January Grand Canyon report, the Park Service vowed to run a survey to determine how widespread the sexual-harassment problem is. According to Jeff Olson, the agency’s public affairs officer, they are in the process of finding companies to run the survey, and it should be out to employees by the end of September.

Matt Elliott, assistant inspector general for investigations for the Office of Inspector General, says that after these two high-profile investigations, the office will continue to keep a close eye on these issue in all of its agencies, and will be more mindful of looking out for patterns.

Responsibility for disciplinary actions following the Grand Canyon investigation falls to the intermountain regional director Sue Masica, who reports, like all other regional directors, to Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell. But O’Dell,who was also on a task force in 1999 to improve conditions for women in law enforcement, recently announced she will retire at the end of July after 37 years in the agency, Olson confirmed. (O’Dell could not be reached for comment.)

After the hearing, Hice and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, called for Jarvis’ ousting.

“My role in the committee is to alleviate some of the frustrations Americans experience by getting to the root of the problem and removing waste, fraud and abuse inside federal agencies,” Hice said in an email. “Oftentimes, it starts with the head of the agency.”

As of July 12, the petition had less than 900 signatures. That means it won’t likely come near the 100,000 needed for President Barack Obama to respond—but that’s not the point, says the petition’s creator, David Emanuel, of Save Our Recreation, a Bay Area advocacy group. “It’s a signal to Congress that there is a grassroots effort. People are aware and angry.”

The uproar regarding Jarvis is the second time this year Congress has stepped in on the issue of sexual harassment in the Park Service this year. In April, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and others called for reform in the agency, though not focusing on Jarvis. “What I want to see is institutional and cultural change within the National Park Service,” Gallego said recently. “If we stop seeing forward momentum, we’d have to revisit this.” He also added that he is drafting an amendment to the Department of Interior appropriations bill to direct the secretary not to rehire employees who were disciplined for harassment.

As the Obama administration nears the end of its term, many former and current park employees have voiced concern that the efforts to change the culture of gender bias and sexual harassment in the agency will fade away, as they did in the early 2000s during the transition to the Bush administration. But Gallego said that’s not going to happen.

“I’m 36, and I’m going to be in Congress for 20 years, and Grand Canyon is in my state,” he said. “So the issue is not going to be dropped.”

In the last six months, High Country News has received more than 40 letters from women and men working in federal parks, forests and lands, explaining personal experiences of sexual harassment, gender bias, assault and retaliation in the workplace.If you are a federal public land employee and would like to report your own experience with sexual harassment, please fill out High Country News’ confidential tip form.

Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this article, which originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

The National Park Service’s 2016 centennial got off to a rocky start.

On Jan. 2, militants occupied Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a sustained attack on the very legality of public land—the philosophical and political foundation upon which the national parks and other reserves (including wildlife refuges) are built.

Then in mid-January came the galling announcement that one of the system’s flagships, Yosemite, is changing the names of well-loved landmarks in response to a legal dispute with a concessions company that managed to trademark park imagery and institutions for its own marketing purposes.

Neither is the sort of publicity that the agency hoped to receive from this anniversary, which was supposed to re-ignite the enthusiasm of the American public in a yearlong campaign called “Find Your Park.”

More in line with the message, surely, are two well-timed new books.

A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks is an almost painfully earnest re-assessment of the national park system at the century mark. Its 23 chapters dissect the parks—why, and for whom, they exist. The book reflects the evolution of the agency’s approach to conservation, recreation, inclusiveness, sustainability and other facets. Between Ulysses S. Grant’s creation of Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872, and Barack Obama’s designation in February of three new national monuments comprising 1.8 million acres of California desert, the National Park Service has expanded its horizons generally from the West to the East, from scenic to historic, from wilderness toward urban areas. “The national parks are the American experience expressed in place,” writes former director Denis Galvin in the foreword, and as our understanding of the contours of that experience expands, the agency’s mission grows with it. “Today we contemplate the effects of a changing climate against the benchmarks of these protected places,” Galvin writes. “The story and contributions of enslaved people, once invisible, are now told.”

The book’s academic and in-agency contributors strike a measured balance between celebration and constructive criticism. The critiques mostly revolve around the agency’s slowness to come to terms with America’s history of oppression and diversity. These brief essays show an agency eager to attract young people and what we’ll soon enough need to stop calling minorities—the demographic core of whatever future support the parks may enjoy.

Population is increasing faster than park attendance, even as the system grows to meet its audience. The challenge is significant, and no book, however gorgeously illustrated (this one has 300 glossy color photos), is likely to be the magnet that draws new visitors into the parks.

But for anyone already invested, A Thinking Person’s Guide makes an excellent armchair roadmap to the Park Service’s more than 400 sites and its many priorities and pursuits, which range from community farming partnerships within the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island, Wash., to the Kaibab Paiute Tribe’s leadership in preserving dark skies at Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. You might think of the book as an illustrated catalog of the nation’s grandest common holdings, and an eloquent (if indirect) defense of the principles and benefits of public land managed for public use.

The Wonder of It All, compiled by the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy, takes a different approach, collecting 100 short anecdotes and testimonials to the parks’ transformative powers. They’re stories of first jobs, true love, encounters with bears and wolves and stars, and the sudden flare of a light in a child’s eyes.

The Wonder of It All demonstrates both the charms and flaws of anthologized amateur writing, but its stories exude a heartfelt passion that complements and sweetens the administrative efficiency of A Thinking Person’s Guide. Bob McConnell’s recollection of a night enjoying opera with veteran seasonal Yosemite ranger Carl Sharsmith, who died in 1994, offers an intimate portrait of one of the many indispensable volunteers who make the parks tick, while Rebecca Bailey learns that the less-than-flattering “green and gray” uniform is no deterrent to unsolicited male attention in “How to Talk to a ‘Girl Ranger.’” (“Respectfully” will do just fine, thank you.) Anybody who’s ever worn that iconic flat hat, or daydreamed of doing so, will likely enjoy these stories.

Both of these new books serve as invitations to the national parks—a reminder that it’s not enough to support the idea of the parks; we need to visit them in person and get to know them. As timeless and unassailable as they may seem, the parks are the tip of America’s public-lands iceberg, and if recent history shows anything, it’s that they require our constant protection.

Plenty of folks are fighting hard to find new ways to exploit our natural and scenic resources. For now, “We the People” have the stronger claim. We’d be remiss, and we’d be lessened, if we failed to exercise it.

The Wonder of It All: 100 Stories From the National Park Service

Edited by the Yosemite Conservancy

Yosemite Conservancy

320 pages, $18.95

A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks

Edited by Robert Manning, Rolf Diamant, Nora Mitchell and David Harmon

George Braziller

300 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

What I say will not make me a popular person, but here it is: For excellent reasons, dogs should not be—and usually aren’t—allowed in the backcountry of national parks.

Dogs, being predators, bother wildlife even when they’re leashed. Then there’s canine fecal matter, which carries a number of diseases and parasites that may be passed on to wildlife.

Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of dogs are not good hikers; their paws become lacerated, and since they sweat through their feet, it is easy for them to overheat. If a dog gets lost or injured, search-and-rescue volunteers may have to risk their lives to aid the animal. This year, off-leash dogs had to be rescued from Volcanoes, Acadia, Kenai Fjords and Yellowstone national parks.

There seem to be many people who cannot bear to be away from their fuzzy loved one for the length of a hike in the wilderness, so they bring their dog along—even when it is prohibited. How do they get away with that, you may ask? Easy: They just say it is a “service” or “therapy” dog.

Bingo. No one can question the service dog. Websites selling service-dog vests, collars and even bandanas brag you can “Take your dog anywhere.” Then they add that they sincerely hope no one is gaming the system by registering a service dog that is not, in fact, a service dog. Right.

In 2011, the National Service Animal Registry signed up 2,400 emotional support animals. Last year, it registered 11,000. No paperwork required; this is on the honor system. Public employees such as park rangers may ask whether the dog in question is a service dog, but they may not ask about the manner of a person’s disability. One is allowed to ask what the dog is trained to react to and what, as a caring professional, one should do upon that occasion. Websites promoting pseudo-service dogs warn that one should have the answer memorized so “it flows smoothly.” If the question evokes a blank stare from those who have not rehearsed their smooth response, one can, if one is in a snarky mood and out of uniform, mention that “liars go to hell.”

Those protected under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act are not pleased. Some say they are concerned that the rights of those with disabilities will be undermined by those who want Fido along and are willing to lie to achieve that goal. Although passing a dog off as a service animal is a federal offense, perpetrators figure they won’t get caught.

This is becoming enough of a problem on and off trails that municipalities such as Prescott, Ariz., are passing or proposing laws penalizing the pseudo-service dog. Meanwhile, national parks are allowed to close an area to service animals if it is determined that the animal poses a threat to the health or safety of people or wildlife. Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks both require that service dogs be registered with the backcountry office. The owner is schooled on trail etiquette, and search-and-rescue is alerted.

Rangers say that they never used to see dogs; now they deal with them 20 to 30 percent of the time. A dog owner may be ticketed if the dog is off-leash, barking or defecating on the trail—but not for lying about the dog’s status.

Mule wranglers at Grand Canyon say mules will attack a dog. On a narrow trail with a cliff on one side, this is not a good scenario. One wrangler says the half-dozen dog owners she has met cooperated in moving their dog out of sight; still, they’re a hazard.

Make no mistake: There are those for whom having their dog along can be a matter of life and death. When a legitimate service dog is on the trail, the owner usually sets a realistic itinerary and avoids extreme temperatures. But they often leave the dog home, because they do not want their animal exposed to danger or put under stress.

So what, you might ask, is the harm to a national park if a true or faux service dog is well-behaved while it’s there? Badly behaved teenagers surely do more damage to the wilderness than dogs; after all, dogs don’t spray paint their name on the rocks.

For me, it’s the lack of respect for a park’s rules that gets my goat—the notion that rules apply to other people, but not to me.

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in Community Voices

More than 40 percent of our national parks, from Arizona’s Saguaro to Wyoming’s Grand Teton, contain inholdings. Those privately owned chunks of land complicate management, block public access and present a risk of development—as when a luxury home was built in the middle of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado, five years ago.

Now, the main source of funding for buying such inholdings, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, is in serious jeopardy: At the end of September, Congress let it expire, failing to reauthorize it despite widespread bipartisan support.

The LWCF does a lot more than buy inholdings, too. Roughly half of it goes to providing conservation easements on private land, conserving privately owned timberlands, developing urban parks and ball fields, and funding endangered species projects on nonfederal lands.

Since its inception in 1964, the LWCF has protected more than 7 million acres. The fund draws no taxpayer dollars; most of it comes from royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling.

“There’s poetry in the idea that we can use revenue generated from the depletion of one resource to enhance another,” says John Gale, conservation director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Since 1978, the fund has been authorized to receive up to $900 million annually, though in recent years, Congress has appropriated less than a third of that.

But even as Congress cut LWCF’s funding, members on both sides of the aisle were trying to use it for projects in their own districts. According to a 2014 investigation by Greenwire, 16 Republicans, 48 Democrats and three independents had pushed for land acquisition, conservation easements and grants for local parks and trails over the previous five years.

LWCF’s primary foe is Republican Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who has refused to even allow hearings on the bipartisan reauthorization bill that’s been sitting in his committee since April. He’s vowed to continue blocking LWCF until it’s been reformed, citing his opposition to an increase in federal lands for any reason. (Just more than two years ago, though, Bishop had proposed that Utah counties negotiate to get more congressionally designated wilderness, as a bargaining chip for increased energy development.)

“We are not going to blindly reauthorize a fund with inherent flaws,” says Bishop spokeswoman Julia Slingsby. “This law needs to be updated to reflect the 21st century.”

The fund that Bishop wants to update has provided $48 million to his state for local projects like soccer parks and swimming pools. It’s also paid for more than 7,000 acres of private inholdings within Zion National Park, plus nearly 5,500 acres in Dinosaur National Monument. Bishop’s reforms would put an end to such purchases. He has suggested the program’s money could instead cover shortfalls in PILT, “payments in lieu of taxes,” to counties with large amounts of federal land, or pay for the education of future energy-industry workers. He and other critics also say the fund should be used to cover the $12 billion maintenance backlog at national parks.

The LWCF has accumulated a $20 billion IOU thanks to the gap in appropriations, giving Bishop another excuse to stop funding it. But it’s disingenuous to claim this money is available to be spent, says Lynn Scarlett, managing director of public policy for The Nature Conservancy, and deputy Interior secretary under George W. Bush. “There is no magic $20 billion waiting around, or even one dollar,” she says. “It’s a paperwork credit for funds long ago used for other purposes.”

Now that the program has been allowed to sunset, the royalty money meant for it is going to the general treasury. Under the continuing budget resolution that expires Dec. 11, the House and Senate could pass an extension of the LWCF and maintain that funding link. If they don’t, though, re-establishing it will take an act of Congress.

Fund supporters are now scrambling to find a must-pass piece of legislation to which they can attach reauthorization. The most promising is a compromise by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that would make the program permanent and balance state and federal spending, giving each 40 percent of the annual appropriation, and allowing the remaining 20 percent to be spent flexibly. It would also create a separate fund to address the national park maintenance backlog. Other Western representatives have sponsored similar legislation, including Montana Sens. Steve Daines, R., and Jon Tester, D, as well as Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Meanwhile, environmental and sportsmen’s groups are lobbying mightily for the fund’s resurrection.

“It’s hard for us to see something like LWCF that has broad support become a political chip,” Gale says. “Congress should be able to function and move things that are good for the American people and absolutely a clear winner.”

This story originally appeared in High County News.

Published in Environment

Wayne Hare’s 11 years as a backcountry ranger included stints at Rocky Mountain and Canyonlands national parks and, most recently, at the Grand Junction, Colo., field office of the Bureau of Land Management.

Hare grew up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire, where, he says, “As far as I knew, we were about the only black family in the state.” His father took the kids hiking, camping and biking, giving his son a love of the outdoors that would shape his life. Four years in the Marines were followed by two decades at a big computer corporation; then Hare went to work for Outward Bound in Massachusetts and directed outdoor programs at Dartmouth College. Whenever he led students through the woods, he was struck by what he didn’t see—“other brown people.” So he began writing about non-white Western adventurers and working with the National Park Service to create programs to increase the agency’s diversity. He continues to urge minorities to support—and enjoy—their public lands.

Now 64, Hare retired from the BLM last spring and has been traveling the West. Jodi Peterson caught up with him recently.

Racial and ethnic minorities are fast becoming the majority of the U.S. population, but make up only a small fraction of national park visitors. Why don’t more minorities visit public lands?

As a ranger, I made thousands of public contacts a year. Less than half a dozen were “people of color,” and maybe one was black. That’s just weird! River-rafting or mountain-biking are fun, no matter what color you are. If I blame anyone, it’s people of color who buy into their own stereotypes: “Oh, no, we don’t hike. That’s for white people.”

Also, black Americans’ institutional memory of the outdoors isn’t positive, and we haven’t gotten over that yet. I’ll never forget a black senior at Dartmouth who, in talking with me about the backcountry cabins that Dartmouth owns, and the rock-climbing that is pervasive at the school, said, “I don’t really know what a cabin is, and I don’t know what white people do there. But I do know that I’m not going into the woods with a bunch of white people carrying ropes.” Another student told me, “Our grandparents say, ‘We worked hard so you wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground and use an outhouse.’” That institutional memory and lack of peer permission is something many white folks do not believe or understand. But that shouldn’t be stopping us.

The National Park Service designates specific parks to honor the history of African Americans, like the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. What do you think of that?

Which parks aren’t relevant to black history? In Yosemite, the first armed protectors of the park were a detachment of all-black mounted infantry. Grant-Kohrs, a working ranch in Montana honoring our cowboy heritage, is as relevant to brown-skinned people as the Martin Luther King Jr. site is relevant to white people. A lot of cowboys were black and brown; a lot of freedom riders were white. If we knew our own history, we’d know that we, too, are a part of what national parks represent, and that parks are not just a “white thing.”

Instead of emphasizing differences, I think parks ought to incorporate, in a natural way, the history and stories of everyone, so that we begin to think in terms of “Americans” instead of “hyphenated Americans.” There is no glory, no shame and no history that were not shared by all of us, of all colors.

How can public-lands agencies increase the racial diversity of their visitors and employees?

The agencies have an interest in diversity in public-land management, but I think it’s superficial. It’s such a difficult and uncomfortable thing. Talking about diversity is, after all, talking about race, and at least nodding to the sad history of race in this country. So diversity has morphed into “respect in the workplace.” But diversity isn’t just about getting along. It’s about having a greater cross-section of America—the “Face of America,” as Bob Stanton, former Park Service director, used to say, working on and visiting our public lands.

The Park Service and BLM could do more to promote careers in public lands, such as recruiting in places with more minorities, like big cities. I’ve heard more than one federal hiring manager say something to the effect that they’d advertise a position and simply hire the best-qualified candidate … but they made no attempt to let nontraditional candidates know about those jobs. How about sending some of us to visit schools, in uniform, to simply tell our career stories and flash photos of beautiful places and fun activities?

There are many organizations that take kids of all colors out into the woods. That will pay dividends, and the Park Service is very supportive of those groups.

I often think about the words of William Sloane Coffin Jr.: “Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.” If we Americans, hyphenated or otherwise, want to continue having public lands to enjoy, we better get our diverse asses in gear.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

When a racist rancher in Nevada and his armed supporters can command headlines by claiming to own and control publicly owned lands, perhaps it’s time to remind Westerners about the history of the nation’s public-land heritage.

Recall that it is we, the American people, who own the public lands that make up so much of our Western states. These great open spaces are the birthright of all of us, not just the residents of Nevada or California or other Western states. The question of ownership of the public lands was settled by the founding fathers, in favor of you and me, by the Maryland compromise reached in 1781, and carried forward in the property clause of Article IV in the United States Constitution.

On occasion, diehard malcontents such as Cliven Bundy emerge to promote so-called "Sagebrush Rebellions" to turn the public lands over to the states as a conduit for handing them out to resource raiders and private interests. Governors and state legislatures, most recently in Utah, are sometimes drawn into endorsing these movements, only to see them fade away in the face of public opinion.

While this latest fracas is fresh in our minds, let me speak up for the employees of the Bureau of Land Management, who have been demonized by Fox News' Sean Hannity and threatened by rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers. BLM staffers are dedicated public servants who struggle with the unenviable task of juggling the conflicting demands of ranchers, miners, oil and gas companies, sportsmen and conservationists. They deserve our respect and our gratitude.

I believe that the whole sorry Bundy episode has given us an opportunity to renew our commitment to conservation. We can do that by calling on President Barack Obama to take action to protect more of the special places on our public lands.

He can begin by using the Antiquities Act to establish more national monuments. Some may counsel caution in light of the recent House passage of a bill by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop to gut the law. However, the best way to protect and preserve the Antiquities Act is to use it visibly and vigorously, thereby demonstrating once again the broad public support it has enjoyed for more than 100 years.

The president could start with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill to protect a million acres in the Mojave Desert of California—including land adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. Or he could take up Maine Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud’s bill to protect the scores of small islands that host seabird colonies off the coast of Maine. The president can use his authority under the Antiquities Act to take these bills and their establishing language and designate the lands in questions as new national monuments.

President Obama could also review the list of our existing national parks and monuments, many of which are in need of expansion because these areas are threatened by encroaching strip mining, drilling or other incompatible development. He could start out in the majestic expanses of Southern Utah, where Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef national parks all need additional lands to protect their archaeological sites and unique geological formations.

And at Yellowstone National Park, the migratory herds of bison, elk and other wildlife all need more space, which can be best obtained by designating the forest lands to the West as a national monument. There are many other areas where local residents are voicing support for new national monuments, including the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in Idaho, the Vermillion Basin in Colorado and the Owyhee Canyons in Oregon.

The president also has the authority to add lands to our National Wildlife Refuge System. There is an urgent need to create a system of refuges to protect the endangered greater sage grouse that inhabits the sagebrush seas that stretch across public lands in seven Western states.

In addition, the Antiquities Act could be used to protect fisheries and endangered coral system in our marine waters. Bristol Bay off Western Alaska is the most prolific of our fisheries, the passage through which millions of salmon migrate to spawn throughout the river systems of Alaska. The little-known deep-water corals adjoining the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea also deserve enhanced protection.

There is much to be done, and President Obama should not wait until the 11th hour to act. He should start now by advancing proposals, explaining the urgency of conservation, generating the visibility of the issues at stake and asking all Americans to voice their opinions. He should invite Congress to take legislative action, making it clear that he will act if it doesn’t.

A robust conservation program, following in the tradition begun by President Theodore Roosevelt, will be an enduring accomplishment for President Obama, a gift to future generations from his time in office.

Bruce Babbitt, an Interior Department secretary under President Bill Clinton, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated service of High Country News. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is working on conservation planning in the Amazon River Basin as a fellow of the Blue Moon Fund.

Published in Community Voices

In To Conserve Unimpaired, University of Utah professor Robert Keiter provides an unvarnished view of “America’s best idea”: the National Park System.

Keiter, the country’s pre-eminent legal expert on the subject, tackles the question: Why does the park idea still evoke so much controversy when its value is so widely acknowledged? For one thing, as he explains, it’s not just about parks. “As highly valued and visible public places, the national parks are inherently political entities … reflecting our larger dialogue about nature conservation and its role in our civic life.”

Keiter traces the evolution of each major idea that has shaped our vision of the national parks. In the early days, the Park Service actively sought to improve visitor experiences by attempting to control nature. Not only did the agency suppress wildfires; it also eradicated wolves to protect more “desirable” wildlife, and fed bears garbage “to create an evening spectacle for park visitors.” If it weren’t for David Brower and the Sierra Club, Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument would have been inundated by the massive Echo Park dam. But they could not stop the Park Service from punching through a network of new roads to facilitate tourism.

Brower, in fact, captured the dichotomy of all national parks: “part schoolroom and part playground and part—the best part—sanctuary from a world paved with concrete, jet-propelled, smog-blanketed, sterilized, over-insured (and) aseptic … with every natural beautiful thing endangered by the raw engineering power of the 20th century.”

The challenge of conserving those “beautiful things” looms even larger today, as we face the pressures of climate change and ever more people and development. One can’t help but wonder whether the legal mandate governing park management, the Organic Act of 1916, is adaptable enough to endure. In fact, the Park Service’s management ethos did begin to change in the 1960s with the influential Leopold report—by legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold—which recommended that parks be managed to represent a “vignette of primitive America” with minimal human intervention into natural processes.

Keiter shows how the Organic Act can continue to accommodate changing views of the national parks while ensuring that conservation comes first. He points the way toward conserving the parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” as the law specifies, through science collaboration, and a heightened sense of social justice, connectivity and diversity, both human and ecological. Yet, as Keiter concludes, “The parks will always be confronted with new demands and threats, testing our commitment to the fundamental principles underlying the hallowed notion of conserving nature in an unimpaired condition.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea

By Robert B. Keiter

Island Press

368 pages, $35

Published in Literature