After a stressful junior year of college, I knew only a handful of things: I didn’t want to be in school, I wanted to go west, I wanted to live with few possessions, and I wanted to visit a whole bunch of National Parks. The rest was up to fate. On June 3, I jumped into my new home — a renovated Chevy Express van — drove west and didn’t look back. I named the van “Hayduke” after Edward Abbey’s fictional environmentalist in The Monkey Wrench Gang.
My first National Park stop on my road trip was in Indiana. Driving in, the place didn’t have “National Park” written all over it. The Indiana Sand Dunes National Lakeshore is near a busy railroad and massive factories. The chipper female voice narrating the automated movie in the visitor center said, “The National Lakeshore is located in one of the most industrialized areas in the United States,” as though it were a good thing.
Somewhat perturbed, I drove my van to the Cowles Bog Trail. The ranger said I could see many different ecosystems and have it mostly to myself.
I understood fairly quickly why the Cowles Bog Trail wasn’t popular. The first section of the hike runs beneath crackling power lines. As it entered a stretch of swampland, I found myself on the edge of ArcelorMittal, the world’s top-ranking steelmaker. Even when the trees covered up the operations, I could still hear the massive, rumbling machinery. After climbing over forested dunes and arriving at Lake Michigan, to my right, a giant smokestack reared it’s ugly head into the sky. I don’t know the composition of what comes out of that particular smokestack, but I do know that steel industry emissions often include carbon dioxide, naphthalene, ammonium compounds, sulfur, and coke dust. Oh, and the beach is covered in trash.
I sat there for a while, trying to enjoy Lake Michigan, but my eyes kept gravitating to the smokestack. I felt a noxious mixture of anger and shame. I wanted to scream at the smokestack for daring to be there and also beg the lake for forgiveness, but I just sat there quietly, fuming.
I’m still not sure why I stripped off all of my clothes and dove into the Michigan. But I do know that despite all the chaos around her, the Michigan’s waters felt calm, cool, and soothing on my skin. As I dried myself off, I felt my anger morphing into resilience. This was my first experience with the unnerving juxtaposition of industrial pollution and public lands.
The movement to preserve the Indiana Dunes began in the late 1800s as the public became concerned about steel companies. They called for a National Park designation in the early 1900s, which was not granted until 1966.
While the Indiana Dunes were designated in an effort to protect them, many of America’s public lands, particularly out West, are headed in a backward direction. Not all public lands are completely protected and are being/have already been encroached upon by oil and gas industries, mining, and livestock grazing.
The United States Federal Government owns 2.27 billion acres of the country’s land, which is managed under various departments, most notably the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. The top five states in terms of federal acreage are all in the West and over 50 percent government-owned: Nevada, Alaska, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho.
A wilderness or National Monument/Park designation are good methods of protection, but neither are completely foolproof. According to a 2012 CBS News article, there are over 11,000 acres of privately owned land encompassed within parks. Many are still pristine, but others have been developed.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management oversee a balance of protection and land use, although the BLM seems to have a romance with oil and gas. According to a recently released study from the Wilderness Society, 90 percent of BLM land is open for oil and gas leasing, with 32 million acres out of a total 250 million acres currently leased. In an article by the Farmington Daily Times in New Mexico, Steve Henke, New Mexico Oil and Gas Association president, fired back, saying the study was a misrepresentation of facts. Henke said one-fifth of the BLM’s land is permanently closed to oil and gas leasing, which I still find rather low.
While the world struggles to mitigate climate change and protect what’s left of pristine nature on a human-dominated planet, public land development is becoming a hot-button issue (read this recent article from Outside Magazine).
As I drove through Utah, I was berated with a repeated radio advertisement from a right-wing politician, in which he railed against federally owned land. He boasted that he fights “the environmentalists” without saying why he disagreed with them (I’m sure it’s difficult to make a case for why you dislike people who are looking out for the planet we all share). He argued for “taking back” the land for Utahans, but left unsaid what he actually wanted to do with that land. I wonder if he would prefer to transform the land tracts into Utah state parks for Utahans, or transform them into auctioned free-for-alls for corporations. Perhaps the most horrific example of anti–federal land sentiment was Ammon Bundy’s armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for over a month.
Despite this, a majority of America’s citizenry, thankfully, seems to favor protection of natural spaces, and I count myself among that majority. Can an America without wide swaths of untouched land that belongs equally to each and every citizen still be the America we know and love? I wouldn’t have heard the road calling if the West was full of smokestacks like Indiana, instead of millions of acres of pristine land.
For More information about Federal Land Development visit ourwild.com.
The Wilderness Society is doing a tremendous job spreading the word that "our American public lands are under assault."
Visit ourwild.wilderness.org for more information.