Healing Our World: Weekly Comment

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Stage Is Set for Corporate Control of Wild Lands

They've lost it, lost it,
and their children
will never even wish for it -
and I am afraid
that the whole tribe's in trouble,
the whole tribe is lost -
because the sun keeps rising
and these days
nobody sings.

-- Aaron Kramer

In 1997, a test began that sent chills down the spines of those who love our nation’s national parks, forests, and wild lands. “Don’t worry,” we were told, as the U.S. Forest Service began charging fees to visit national forests. Never before were public lands accessible only to those who could afford it.

Critics claim the fee is a carefully designed strategy, endorsed by some of the nation's leading recreation industries, to get Americans used to paying fees to use their forests and public lands. The critics further claimed that Congress was creating a maintenance crisis in federally managed forest lands by intentionally cutting their budgets, thus providing an excuse to seek help from corporate America. The fees, critics charged, marked the beginning of corporate control of our public lands that have, until now, been part of our heritage, paid for by our tax dollars.

Well, guess what? The critics were right, as was recently proven with the release of President George W. Bush’s “competitive sourcing plan.” This plan requires agencies like the National Park Service to seek bids from the private sector for jobs within the parks that have been done by park employees. With the nearly $6 billion backlog of maintenance jobs in just the national parks, this amounts to a windfall for private business.

Lake Meade

Man fishes Nevada's Lake Mead, in a National Recreational Area that requires a fee to enter (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
Critics claim that this is a continuing effort by the Bush administration to take tax dollars from the U.S. Treasury and put these dollars into the hands of private businesses, under the guise of stimulating the economy. Sure, a few jobs are created, but many are lost as well, and few citizens will see any benefits. Large corporations, however, are usually the only ones who can pass the rigorous requirements for receiving such contracts and, once again, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

National parks are already beginning to feel the pain of this new program. Hard won dollars that have been reserved for maintenance and repairs in the parks are now, by Presidential order, being spent on hiring expensive consultants to prioritize maintenance jobs and to come up with the plan for getting outside bids.

These consultant contracts are draining park budgets. Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State expects the consultants to cost as much as $335,000 by the time they are finished. That money could have paid for a lot of trail and road maintenance.

Of course, using maintenance money to pay for such studies undermines one of Bush's campaign pledges, ironically made on a visit to Washington state. In September 2000, on a stop at Monroe, Washington, Bush pledged to clear out a maintenance backlog then estimated to be less than $4 billion. That backlog may now be approaching $6 billion with no end in site.

The deeper concern with this plan is the continued corporate influence being exerted on our public lands. The U.S. Forest Service already subsidizes the country's lumber industry with billions of tax dollars by allowing them to cut trees on lands they lease for pennies on the dollar. Taxpayers also foot the bill for the building of roads for lumber companies. There is no requirement that any of the billions of dollars in profit from the sale of that wood be returned to taxpayers.

There is a unique difference between park rangers, even those assigned maintenance duties, and a contracted company whose only interest is completing the job. Most rangers have a unique love and concern for their park and are deeply interested in its survival.

One employee who will probably be fired when Bush’s plan goes into effect is Rich Lechleitner, a maintenance worker at Mount Rainer. Although one of his primary jobs is cleaning backcountry toilets, he is a classic example of the kind of person that a contract won’t bring in.

park

Young visitors to Mount Rainier National Park (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
Lechleitner makes $18 an hour as a maintenance worker, but what he actually does goes far beyond the call of duty. He has a doctorate in zoology, is a skilled mountaineer trained for search and rescue missions, and he used to be the park's animal biologist. He is a licensed firefighter and an emergency medical technician. Those skills are in constant demand, especially from a place where 11 people died in 2002.

Park and forest managers are being pressured to seek more and more money from private corporations. The American Recreation Coalition (ARC), a recreation industry supported group that includes over 100 recreation related associations and corporations, was instrumental in lobbying Congress to implement the public lands fee program back in 1997 and this organization continues to be active .

In February 1999, Derrick Crandall, president of the ARC and president of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, an industry trade group that represents nearly 95 percent of all recreational vehicle sales and service in North America, testified before Congress. He told an oversight hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that the fee program is “an important learning opportunity."

"Across the nation," Crandall said, "we are experimenting with new fees and fees collected in new ways, with fees that vary by day of the week and which are regional in nature.”

And there can be no clearer proof of the intentions of the ARC than the fact that they paid for the implementation of the fee program! A look at some of the members of the ARC is quite revealing - and chilling.

These are just a few of the over 100 organizations that are working hard to influence Congress that they should acquire the rights to develop and operate recreation facilities on public lands and be given contracts to maintain those lands.

park

Big Bend National Park in Texas (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
With recreational spending of Americans estimated to be $300 billion yearly, these companies are poised to reap unprecedented financial benefits. Their plan appears to be to develop a "pay as you go" attitude among public land users where we have to pay for every form of recreating. I do not look forward to the day when I have to enter the ExxonMobil Forest Trailhead and pay five dollars. Yet that day seems to be fast approaching.

Can it really be that the value of our recreational experiences, the power and importance of reconnecting with the natural world and our access to nature are all dependent upon who is the highest bidder?

Do we all really exist to provide profit opportunities for the business and industry? I hope not. We cannot exist solely to provide business opportunities. We must not accept that we can no longer go into the woods when we want to without first finding a store that will sell us a pass because Congress - which includes many former business leaders - wishes to provide opportunities for the world's largest corporations.

The implications of the fee program and Bush’s competitive sourcing plan are far reaching and threaten to set a precedent that will affect the way we perceive public lands and the way we are allowed to visit the natural world for generations to come.

RESOURCES

1. Learn more about the arguments of those who are against the forest service fees and corporate control of wild lands at Free Our Forests at: http://www.freeourforests.org/

2. Learn about Mount Rainier National Park at: http://www.nps.gov/mora/home.htm

3. The National Parks Conservation Association advocates for national parks. It recently gave the Bush administration a grade of D minus in a recent analysis of the handling of issues that affect national parks. See their website at: http://www.npca.org

4. See the campaign led by conservation associations to boost the park service's budget. It is called Americans for National Parks at: http://www.americansfornationalparks.org

5. See an article about the impact on Bush’s plan on parks at: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/130993_parkmaintenance16.html

6. See the National Park Service website about the Fee Demonstration Program at: http://www.nps.gov/dena/home/visitorinfo/programs/userfee.html

7. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them. Tell them they need to stop Bush’s competitive sourcing plan. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at: http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle and the author of "Healing Our World," A Journey from the Darkness Into the Light," available at: http://www.xlibris.com/HealingOurWorld.html and “Of This Earth, Reflections on Connections,” available at: http://ofthisearth.org. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at: jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his website at: http://www.healingourworld.com}