Every once in a while, some event in the news offers a peek into the cloistered lives of folks lucky enough to own a vast expanse of land. Like the Carroll family of Howard County, who have kept mostly to themselves for three centuries 2,000 acres of uniquely historic property, and the Armstrongs of South Texas, whose 50,000-acre spread was the site of Vice President Dick Cheney's recent hunting mishap.
Most Americans will never know the luxury of such breathing space. And many of those who have managed to find their way onto smaller farms and ranches are being so squeezed by property taxes rising from the real estate boom that they fear they will be forced to sell out. Even in places like Maryland, where conservation easements are available to relieve some of that pressure, officials say property owners are finding developers' offers increasingly hard to resist.
To be a conservationist these days is to battle against the reality of constantly losing ground.
Thus, it is all the more vital to protect and preserve the national forests and rangeland, wilderness and wildlife refuges put aside by generations past to ensure that everyone has access to unspoiled vistas. All Americans are enriched because they have a home where buffalo roam and deer and antelope play - even those who don't take the time to see it.
Alas, these spaces, too, are under siege, most urgently from Bush administration proposals to sell them off.
One particularly cynical scheme in the president's 2007 budget calls for selling off more than 300,000 acres of national forest in 35 states, including Virginia, to raise $800 million over five years to help rural counties pay for schools and roads. These are described as small, scattered parcels, but often they provide the only public access to larger forests.
No less sinister is a directive to the Bureau of Land Management to sell off enough western rangeland over the next five years - 500,000 acres, by some estimates - to raise $182 million, of which 70 percent would be used to reduce the federal budget deficit while preserving tax cuts for millionaires.
These ideas come after the administration has already dramatically ramped up the sale of oil and gas leases on public lands. Soaring profits in the energy industry have made drilling on BLM land more attractive, and it now seems to be the administration's favored use for land that is also supposed to support wildlife habitat, cattle grazing, recreation and other purposes.
In fact, the BLM is so focused on issuing permits for oil and gas drilling that it is neglecting its duty to protect the land, air, water, fish and wildlife damaged by drilling, according to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office.
So a few score buffalo may still be roaming, but the mule deer and pronghorn antelope aren't playing so much around the natural gas fields of Wyoming, according to studies that show wildlife populations dropping where drilling rigs are located.
Meanwhile, wild horses continue to be removed from the range and put in long-term holding pastures because the BLM says its 261 million acres in 12 states can't sustain more than 28,000 horses along with other uses. The agency is begging ranchers - particularly those whose cattle graze on public lands - to take on the older, harder-to-adopt horses for $10 a head.
The goal is to shed the cost of maintaining the holding pastures while finding permanent homes for the animals. But at the same time, the administration is refusing Congress' directive to shut down three foreign-owned horse slaughter plants where these animals could ultimately end up.
The only way to stop any of this is for voters to let their elected officials know they don't want to exchange their heritage for a short-term energy or tax-cut fix. If they don't make their views known, Americans may look around some day to discover the country and its extraordinary natural resources have literally been sold out from underneath them. Only those folks lucky enough to have private retreats will be able to appreciate what the rest have lost.