Monday, February 20, 2012

Wilderness Under Seige

On Saturday I spent the afternoon hiking around Raven Rocks in West Virginia.  I particularly remember one moment when my friends and I, after leaving the trail and bushwacking down the side of the ridge to find a cave, stopped for a moment in silence to listen to the sound of the dead leaves caught in the bare trees that surrounded us on every side.  From every direction the leaves seemed to be whispering something just beyond our grasp. The sound was only broken by distant birdcalls and the muffled thumps of target practice being conducted somewhere along the valley.  This moment is one reason why, when I picked up a copy of the Washington Examiner to read for kicks on the metro ride home, I was so enfuriated by Ron Arnold's op-ed peice, Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts' political war.

The article applauds the work of Don Amador, a Beltway lobbyist advocating "to keep scenic forest roads and public trails open to motorcyclists, snowmobilers, trail bikers, dune buggy fans and other OHVers".  This article paints Amador as the "General" of "embattled motorized recreation enthusiasts" in their struggle against the monolithic axis of evil that is "Big Green's ferocious and lavishly funded anti-OHV faction - those selfish, relentless, and effective elitists out to reduce public access to federal lands substantially, if not altogether".  It also bemoans the Wilderness Act of 1964, the act that created the federal category of designated wilderness areas in which there is no mechanized vehicle access or man-man structures built, and trails are generally maintained to a lower standard.

Amador is from the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an oil-, mining-, timber-, and motorized recreation-funded advocacy outfit that sees it as its obligation to its members to attack the very idea of legislated "wilderness" and aims to ensure that there is no federal territory anywhere that is protected from motor vehicles.  BRC, like the Examiner article itself, seeks to promote a political narrative in which "elite" anti-recreation environmentalists seek to close off access to any public lands they can from everyone except, well, themselves.  Like most political narratives, this one works by portraying the population as inherently divided, in this case between a majority who require their noisy, polluting motorized vehicles to access wild areas and a small minority with the necessary fitness, money, and leisure time to  hike on foot into these spaces.  The BRC sees environmental organizations as anti-human in that they ultimately desire to close off any and all access by the public to whatever wild lands they can get their hands on.

I have spent a lot of time in federally designated wilderness areas in both the West and the East.  Just this summer I had an amazing weekend backpacking through New Hampshire's Pemigawasset Wilderness.  The honest truth is that there are very good reasons why a small proportion of federal wildlands should always be closed off from motor vehicle access and human development of any kind.  The noise and pollution that comes with these vehicles, plus the necessary increased trail maintenance work, necessarily robs these areas of a certain value in terms of biodiversity, solitude, and serenity.

Currently designated wilderness makes up only 4.82% of the country's land area, although even that figure is misleading, since more than half of that wilderness is located in Alaska, where, in fact, limited use of motorized vehicles and limited human development is already allowed in wilderness areas.  That means that, in the lower 48, only 2.58% of land is designated of wilderness.  The idea that even this tiny bastion of motor-vehicle-free wildland should be indiscriminately opened up to these devices is bizarre.

BRC's contention that prohibiting bikes or motor vehicles from wilderness areas necessarily denies access to groups of people is not only fallacious but misframes the issue.  Arnold, in the article, blames the Wilderness Act for being "why you can't drive your kids or their granny through a federal wilderness area some nice weekend afternoon".  He seems to envision a hypothetical future in which roads carrying minivans of the elderly and disabled run through all federal wildlands, yet paradoxically, these lands manage to retain their value as solitary, remote recreational destinations.  Yes, prohibiting the building of roads and the use of mechanized vehicles in these areas does make it more difficult to access them.  But in no way does it bar any one person or group of people from getting into them.  Pack animals are still a legal and perfectly legitimate way of traveling in wilderness, one that is available for day rental and, in my view, requires no more physical stamina than riding an OHV over rocky mountain trails does.  Yes, the prohibition on mechanized vehicles does prevent every Joe Schmoe with a few hours to kill on a sunday afternoon from revving up the ATV and driving through pristine woodland to check out the foliage.  Yes, because of the prohibition, it takes time, effort, and dedication to access these areas; you have to really want to be there for the sake of being there.  But no one (except, perhaps, those so frail they can't ride a pony, and would probably never even be able to ride an OHV either) is denied their right to access these lands.

Arnold attacks what he sees as the undue influence of big money in matters of public policy.  Apparently, in matters of environmental policy and federal-land-use issues, the worst offenders aren't the coal, oil and timber companies smacking their drooling lips over all those resources in wilderness areas just begging to be pillaged.  No, the real big-money wielders are the "Big Green" outfits like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.

I contend that for any mainstream political voice to claim undue influence of money in politics, in our current moment, is fundamentally disingenuous and necessarily misrepresentative.  Yes, our nation has a problem with money in politics.  In fact, you need money, lots and lots of it, to make your voice heard at all in today's political climate.  The right uses these tactics, and the left uses them too.  Everyone does it, and it isn't going to stop.  Whenever anyone even close to the mainstream political views of this country to cries foul over money in politics, its always in an attempt to destroy the influence of the other side (I exempt those with views so radical or fringe that their voice really IS silenced by the lack of big-money outfits advocating for them - although in truth their are a number of fringe political extremists on the right in the US today that have no problem finding plenty of money to make their voice unduly heard).

Finally, I cannot ignore the penultimate paragraph of Arnold's article.  Its short and I think it deserves to be quoted in its entirety here:
What's most political about trail decisions is that they're not just for OHV enthusiasts. They're about keeping federal lands open for business. Think timber, mining, farming, ranching, oil and gas.
I have to admit I was quite surprised to see this stated so openly and specifically.  I would have thought that an underlying agenda of using the debate about recreational use of wilderness as a vanguard to ultimately push the interests of these industries would be something that the OHV-faction for which Arnold speaks would wish to keep quiet.  I would have thought that the BRC and their ilk would prefer to represent their interests as fundamentally distinct from the interests of the resource-pillagers of the fuel and mineral industry.  Nope.  Apparently these "OHV enthusiasts" see no disconnect between their rally for increased recreational use and larger fight to open land to industrial use which would severely limit its recreational value.

Now, I'm not opposed to certain forms of industrial development on federally protected land; as Richard White has pointed out, environmentalists are too often "equate productive work with destruction", seeing nonproductive recreation as the only valid and sustainable use of wildlands, thus leaving all those who support productive industry on the anti-environmental side.  However, not all industrial use of wildland is equal, and certainly the wide range of industries that Arnold lists in the end of his articles do not all represent equal threats to protected land.  Oil and gas extraction are intensively damaging and polluting practices that must be strenuously resisted n all protected wildlands.  What these industries do is take a public good, held in common - namely, wild and biodiverse areas with their educational and recreational value - and convert them to a resource to be consumed for private profit.

On the other hand, timbering, farming, and ranching, in theory, are productive industries that can be integrated into protected wildland in a manner that doesn't damage the integrity of the land as a wild area and a good held in the common. The forces of biology are not so fragile that controlled, sustainable techniques can prevent ecological compromise.  This, of course, requires intensive oversight and regulation, but I am getting beyond the scope of this article.  That being said, even these industries must be kept out of designated wilderness areas.  As I have mentioned, wilderness is a tiny portion of the land area of the USA, and holds great value for our society precisely because it is untouched by devlopement.  Arnold's out-of-the-blue invocation of industry interests at the end of his paragraph is interesting because it turns an issue of public access - of increasing the public value of a public good - into an issue of private profit.  It does this, of course, through the pervasive capitalist narrative (implied here in the phrase "open for business") that private profit is actually public profit because private profit drives the economy and benefits the public.

Despite all the rhetoric, what the political forces of the Blue Ribbon Coalition et al.,  represent is a fundamental attack on the legal concept of wilderness as created by the landmark Wilderness Act (1964) and Eastern Wilderness Acts (1975).  Besides the fact that Arnold makes it clear that the issue over the recreational use of wilderness is in part a vanguard attack to clear the way for big industry to get its paws on those last bits of protected land, the issue of motorized vehicle access is a purposely divisive narrative that seeks to define environmentalists as anti-recreation and fundamentally pitted against OHV enthusiasts.  Instead of entrenching these divisions which ultimately serve the interests of those who want to see federal land gutted of all protection from development, we need a new narrative.  Those who enjoy public land recreationally need to come together and recognize that there is always a value to protecting certain pieces of land from the intrusion that motorized vehicle necessarily represent - but, even more importantly, also recognizing that all recreationists have an interest in seeing federal protection of wild lands built up, and not torn down.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Occupation and American Culture

            Finally I have some time to put down a few words about Occupy DC and the police action that occurred at MacPherson Square yesterday (and is being repeated at Freedom Plaza today).  Unfortunately, I don't have much time, so I will simply sketch out some of what I saw and felt and heard and offer some thoughts about what it all "means".
            Around 5:40 on Saturday morning, an overwhelming platoon of US Park Service Officers descended on the Occupy DC site at MacPherson square.  With streets all around blocked off and lined with police vehicles, some officers on horseback, others in full riot gear, and all, of course, heavily armed, they resembled a military force, and it was a reminder that there is very little difference between our modern police institutions and a standing army - the standing army, that institution the founding fathers decried as an impediment to liberty.  There was no warning except a non-specific statement issued on Monday warning that enforcement of the no-camping ban would be increased.  I was there around noon when the police occupation was still in full effect, and when I returned ten hours later, the police and their barricades still dominated the whole of the park.
             The strategy was perfect - give the required notice ahead of time that enforcement would be stepped up, but so far ahead of time (5 days) and without stating a specific date and time of the inspections, so that the effect would still be that of having given no warning at all.  When they arrived, what the Park service claimed was that they were there to inspect the site for non-compliance with the camping ban, and that those tents that were "in compliance" would not be removed.   The reality was that the conditions of compliance were so needlessly specific and arbitrary - every tent had to be completely clear on the inside, with all personal belongings and trash piled neatly separated in piles outside, and with no evidence whatsoever of bedding - that, combined with the fact of the pre-dawn unannounced timing of the raid, it allowed the officers to take down and confiscate nearly every single tent in the park.  The Park Service officers barricaded off, in turn, each “occupied” – that is, tented – section of the park in turn and cleared out all of the residents.  Then they brought in HazMat workers to inspect the tents based on their unreasonable criteria that each one be completely empty inside.  
That is correct: workers in full-on HazMat suits with masks, inspected tents for “human waste” – a phrase that seems to evoke an expectation of… what?  Holes dug in the ground for communal toilets?  “Human waste” ? At least half a dozen horses and two bulldozers were paraded around the block – the effect was comical, pageant-esque - while several dumpster-size flatbeds loaded up their quotas of confiscated tents.  The HazMat workers, to me, were the quintessential image of the narrative underlying this attack.  It seems that the collective value systems being enacted by Occupy DC are literally a literally toxic threat to American culture, so much so that the employees of the state need to suit themselves up from head to toe as if they were cleaning up a nuclear-power accident before they could move in on the tents where these people had been living out lives of collective solidarity and non-heirarchical, communal-property-based empowerment systems.
I am sure that the police realize that they did not abide by the law in their handling of their duty to enforce the no-camping ban.  I will not even go into the multiple horrendous examples of physical abuse some protesters suffered at the hands of these officers, though this is an important part of the story as well.  The entirety of their raid, in fact, was illegitimate and is undoubtedly going to be challenged in court - occupiers I spoke to today claimed to have videotaped footage of the government forces tearing apart tents that were totally compliant with their stated criteria.  But that was all secondary to the Park Service's intention to sap the movement of momentum and destabilize it in one fell swoop.  While the legal battles will be fought in coming weeks, the police's improper conduct had the immediate effect of sending the protestors scrambling to even find a place to be.  It seems that the new philosophy of our police institutions is "shock and awe".
Before it was cleared out, the Occupation itself always felt to me to have a subdued carnival atmosphere - a harmonious, well-decorated community of all different kinds of people standing in solidarity and living together with radically collectivist values.  For a person like myself, with too much studying and too comfy a bed to have ever spent much time at a stretch at the Occupation, it was like a cool new museum exhibit in town: an anti-corporate commune that you could walk through and see up close.  Except that every time I go there I meet new people, have new conversations, think about things differently, and my feelings of being an outsider are challenged.  Everyone hedges their statements with admonitions that they “can’t speak for anyone else”.  It had a sense of joyous optimism that was contagious. 
These places, these occupations, are doing a makeover on American culture, replacing the concept of the “public” with the more nuanced concept of the “common” and other collective values.  A public park is something you can only use in superficial ways, run by the government and controlled by the police.  A common park is one that houses people, feeds people, is controlled by general assemblies and group consensus.  American values today thrive on a fallacious notion of individual self-reliance that allows those whom the system privileges to ignore the plight of the disenfranchised.  Occupations bring to light the fact that every person, from the richest to the poorest, depends on resources held in common to do anything and that no one acts in a vaccuum.  They demonstrate that a radical break can be made and american culture shaped into something that recognizes the necessity to accommodate the needs of all, something that recognizes that unbounded consumerism and unbounded greed (which are really both the same thing, or two sides of a coin) is not the only basis for a society.
People keep asking the occupiers for message, for demands, statements, and in fact the MacPherson occupation issued a Declaration back in November of their political demands.  But what these people are actually doing transcends the one-side “demand” logic of the standard civil protest.  These people, through their actions, are making the solution.  This is why and how the mere fact of their camping can be political speech.  It is an active, daily demonstration of the power of collectivist values to create societies of equality where no one goes hungry or lacks a comfortable place to sleep.  And to the corporate interests that profit off of the individualistic values of current American culture, the culture that says that life is a competition for who can die with the most land and cars and luxurious clothes, that says that if you have more money than your neighbor you have the right to do whatever you want with it because of course that means that you worked harder than he did, collective values are anathema.
I won't pretend to know anything about what will happen with Occupy DC except that it will not go away.  The park is still occupied in a general sense - the library, kitchen, and info desk stand, along with less than ten tents that were apparently compliant, out of the dozens that were standing on Friday.  I just returned form a general assembly of about 100 people where the dominant mood was one of defiance and strength.  A multiplicity of plans are being drawn up and it is clear that this is only the beginning of the occupation of american culture by voices of radical dissent.
Perhaps when I have more time I will be able to expand on these ideas and what cultural and societal forces are involved in the Syria-esque nationwide crackdown on these nonviolent protests, plus put up the photos I took that show just how huge an operation this raid was.  For now, though, I'll leave these imperfect paragraphs as they are and return to my studies.