Translation of wise use is misuse of open land

ON THE OUTDOORS

January 14, 2001|By CANDUS THOMSON

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Wise use. That's the phrase popular with some Westerners describing their vision for the country's wide-open spaces.

It's a catchy phrase, a positive phrase, much like smart growth here in Maryland.

Who doesn't want smart growth? Who could possibly be against wise use?

Gale Norton, President-elect Bush's choice to head the Interior Department, is a wise-use gal. Bush and Dick Cheney are wise-use guys.

But the folks pushing "wise use" for the nation's public lands ought to be up-front about how they spell it: Wi$e U$e.

The phrase, you see, is code for getting the federal government to butt out and let loggers and drillers do as they please with forest land, desert and Arctic tundra.

Loosely translated it means, "Bring on the oil derricks and the buzz saws, boys and girls, we're gonna have us a wingding."

There has been a lot of coyote-like howling out here as President Clinton follows the lead of Teddy Roosevelt to ensure future generations have quiet, pristine places for exercise, contemplation and inspiration.

During his administration, Roosevelt created five national parks, 16 national monuments and 51 national wildlife refuges, believing, "The rights of the public to the natural resources outweigh private rights, and must be given first consideration."

TR said: "Birds should be saved for utilitarian reasons; and moreover, they should be saved because of reasons unconnected with any return in dollars or cents. A grove of giant redwoods or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great and beautiful cathedral."

Clinton's actions to date - there are indications he's not done yet - mean almost 6 million acres already held by the federal government will not be poked, gouged or defiled.

His decisions are opposed not only by development interests, but also by local people who feel the president is taking away potential jobs by not allowing development of public property. "Hungry And Out Of Work? Eat An Environmentalist," says a popular bumper sticker.

The sentiments expressed on Arizona talk radio and the letters-to-the-editor pages are all variations on the "wise use" argument.

"We know what's best," they say. "Technology will save us."

But if you think "wise use" is a great concept, I have a one-word reply for you: Phoenix.

After drinking in the beauty of the Grand Canyon, driving three hours south to the city of 1.3 million souls can be downright depressing. A brown blanket of smog often drapes over office towers and the mountains to the east. Traffic is horrible, and the local paper says massive road construction won't help. The city is adding almost 25,000 homes a year as planners wring their hands over "acre-an-hour" development.

While it might be easy to tell Phoenix to wallow in the nest it has fouled, the sad truth is the city's problems will literally suck other areas dry.

All the growth means the long-term municipal water supply won't quench the thirst of a population expected to top 2.3 million by 2050. Phoenix, which already uses a 300-mile pipeline to the Colorado River, will have to look for other distant sources to draw on.

Will technology save us? Cheney, who also supports oil drilling in Alaska, says it will.

Yet technology couldn't protect the water and wildlife contaminated by the Exxon Valdez, nor could it protect the seven Challenger astronauts. Technology is our creation and people make mistakes.

And that's why wise use isn't.

The "wise" guys also lack a plan to ensure there will be enough open spaces for us all.

National parks such as the Grand Canyon, Zion, Yosemite and Yellowstone already are grappling with crowd control. The canyon gets 5 million visitors each year; Zion, 2.5 million; Yosemite, 3.5 million. The granddaddy of them all, Yellowstone, gets well over 3 million.

Unless you visit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in the first two months of the year or opt for the North Rim during the park's May-to-October season, expect wall-to-wall people and roaring buses.

The National Park Service has closed most roads to private vehicles and installed bus service, but you can't hide 5 million people.

By setting aside the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and the 1 million-acre Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument nearby in northern Arizona, Clinton is giving our national parks room to grow.

Acting on the same principle last week, Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed spending $145 million over the next five years to preserve open space in Maryland from development. He also is calling for a new state official to oversee smart growth, which is what his administration calls its effort to limit sprawl.

The state already has spent $25.3 million to buy Chapman's Landing in Charles County and $7.8 million to acquire 4,700 acres at Deep Creek Lake. It also has purchased 4,300 acres along the "wild and scenic" Youghiogheny River and is in the process of buying 58,000 acres on the Eastern Shore for $33 million.

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