No Sacrifices Of The Public Interest In Times Of Emergency

| Strategize!

Above photo: President Trump meets with energy executives to discuss oil prices during the pandemic on April 3, 2020. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

The Trump administration continues to strip away environmental protections in the face of the pandemic.

History shows that the people can fight back — and win.

Never one to miss an opportunity, the Trump administration has repeatedly used the COVID-19 crisis as cover to enact unwise and dangerous environmental policies against the public interest and to forestall citizen input.

In recent days the Environmental Protection Agency has moved forward with weakening rules for automobile emissions and relaxing pollution standards. The Bureau of Land Management continues leasing for oil and gas drilling even as prices drop. And while much of the country remains under stay-at-home orders and faces the most disruptive public health crisis in a century, deadlines for public statements on forest plans have not been extended and formats for hearings about dams have frustrated citizens who wish to speak up for public resources.

Republicans are using today’s pandemic-related exigencies to undermine environmental protection and the public interest. We’ve seen it before. Hiding behind emergencies is from an old playbook.

Americans have heard excuses about national emergencies in the past and resisted them; we should again.

For a success story that resonates today, we need only look back to the era of the Vietnam War. In late 1966 Kennecott Copper Corporation announced its intent to develop a massive open-pit mine at Miners Ridge, within the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area of the North Cascades in Washington state. The mine would be near the iconic Image Lake, where backpackers enjoy perhaps the greatest views in the entire Cascade Range.

The context of the Vietnam War allowed Kennecott to argue it was merely fulfilling its duty to provide essential materials for the war effort, under which the General Services Administration had established a plan to stockpile critical materials for national security. Seeking to get new mines into operation, the agency promoted incentives that included loans and technical assistance.

Amid all of this, Kennecott pitched its proposed pit as patriotic.

Conservationists quickly grew alarmed. The Wilderness Act, which protected 9.1 million acres of federal land and established the Glacier Peak Wilderness, had just been signed into law in 1964. A compromise in the law allowed Kennecott and other companies to mine claims, but conservationists opposed the giant corporation and demonstrated the obvious: that open-pit mining and wilderness were incompatible.

Everyone knew the mountains held copper — the place name was Miners Ridge, after all. During World War II, at a time when minerals were similarly in demand, the War Production Board approved a road to the mine site, but it never was built.

Dyer was right. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, who had authority over the U.S. Forest Service, which administered the wilderness, soon admitted that the war effort and the public’s standard of living would “not suffer” one bit if the mine was “left undeveloped.”This failure showed that maybe the copper in Miners Ridge really wasn’t that important after all. In 1967, as Kennecott pressed ahead, Polly Dyer, arguably the most important conservationist in Pacific Northwest history, reasoned in a public hearing that “If the Nation was able to pass through that desperate war effort without needing to utilize the copper in Miners Ridge, I am extremely skeptical about Kennecott’s assertion that it is necessary for today’s war operation.”

For all its talk of selfless service to the nation, Kennecott operated primarily to bolster its bottom line — and to establish the precedent of mining within wilderness boundaries. The company’s president was exasperated by having to try the case in the press against an angry public. In his view, the company’s interest was the nation’s interest.

All of this is tiringly familiar in 2020, when the president’s personal interests, antipathy to the press and the public, and desire to establish untoward precedents animate virtually every utterance and policy.

What are the lessons we can take away from this?

Kennecott never built its mine, and the site remains secure as wilderness today, but that was not accidental. It took the efforts of citizens and organizations like the North Cascades Conservation Council and The Mountaineers publicizing the threat, writing representatives, and showing up at hearings. Through it all, Northwesterners demanded that the public’s interest be protected against the corporate bottom line.

In summer 1967 Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas traveled from his summer home in Goose Prairie, Washington, to attend a protest near the mine site. An aroused public, he said to 150 to 200 protestors on the trail, might “appeal to the community’s sense of justice” and declare there are values beyond “a few paltry dollars.”

The public interest, then and now, transcends the bottom line. It sustains democracy; it doesn’t suspend it.

We must not let our representatives use COVID-19 as an excuse to undermine environmental governance. We must continue to stand up for the protections that already exist, which protect not just our wilderness but human health.

History suggests that we can win these fights with determined resistance. Even amid the disruptions visiting our lives with lost lives and jobs, we need to keep one eye on the future and remember that our voices can make a difference.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.

Adam M. Sowards is a historian and author of An Open Pit Visible from the Moon: The Wilderness Act and the Fight to Protect Miners Ridge and the Public Interest.

  • Jeff

    There is never a legitimate reason for harming the natural environment. But most people are cowards and are ill-informed or uninformed (as Mark Twain pointed out long ago), so they don’t resist this kind of thing. The Department of Fatherland Security and the Patriot Act were created in the wake of 911. Kudos to the people who stopped that horrible mining proposal, but that kind of victory is an exception, not the rule, unfortunately,

  • Nylene13

    Here in rural Nevada, the public owned BLM lands are being used for beef cows while our Wild Horses are being wiped out. There are NO Wolves left in the wild in Nevada. The cattle ranchers have killed them ALL.

    This is a good time to Stop Eating Meat. Meat is not a necessary food for humans, and if people feel they must eat animals products, they can eat chicken eggs and drink goat and cows milk and cheese.

    These should come from small family farms or worker owned small farm co/ops where the animals are well treated. Older animals still provide manure for vegetable gardens and older chickens also eat garden bugs.

    Eating Beef is not healthy for our lands, our animals or our health.

    We must change the way we live.

  • Nylene13

    You should read PETA’s latest article (today) on what is being found in wild caught fish. Many Parasites but also MERCURY.

    My chickens are free range, they hunt for bugs all day around my garden and trees and go into their chicken house on their own when the sun starts to go down. I am sure their eggs have plenty of B12.

    The old chickens catch just as many bugs and make just as good garden manure as the young ones.

    All the animal protein anyone could need.

  • Jeff

    Humans have polluted the entire planet, so everything we eat has something bad in it. I’m fully aware of the mercury pollution in fish, but if you only eat them 2-3 times/month and aren’t buying the more polluted ones, it’s no worse than anything else. Mercury pollution is a result of burning coal, which was the beginning of industrial civilization to which I’m totally opposed and that should be abolished (we could stop living industrially in 150-200 years if we start moving in that direction now and get global human population “down” to one billion).

    Pasture-raised chickens and their eggs may be the least harmful animal agriculture. If so, it should be the last to go. We occasionally buy eggs from pasture-fed chickens too when we want a break from fish & seafood. But it’s still animal agriculture and therefore ecologically harmful, as are all artificial human manipulations of the land and ecosystems.

    In several thousand years we should all be living as hunter-gatherers so we stop wrecking the planet by imposing our selfish will on it. People could still eat eggs in small numbers — other animals need to breed to maintain their populations — but they’d have to gather them in the wild.

  • Nylene13

    My chickens are practically in the wild. They roam around freely all day and go back into the chicken house in the evening on their own.

    I do shut them in at night to keep out predators. I don’t think they mind this at all.

    I don’t think small family/tribal organic gardens hurt the environment at all.

  • Jeff

    I guess it comes down to your definition of “harmful.” Any agriculture, from the smallest garden to huge agribusiness, means killing native plants in order to grow what people want to eat. Killing anything for any reason except to eat it (with only very rare exceptions) is harmful to the killed plants, the habitat, the ecosystem, and the animals who depend on the native plants. But again, you focus on humans, I don’t, so that’s where our difference lies on this issue.

  • Nylene13

    Just what DO you eat Jeff?

    Do you live in a area where there is year around wild vegetables and fruit for the picking?

  • Jeff

    It’s not about what I or any other individual eats now. Agriculture has been destroying the Earth for more than 10,000 years, and it will take thousands of years to get back to living naturally as hunter-gatherers. No one is going to make that change overnight or even in a few hundred years, but if we continue worshiping agriculture and don’t have a return to living in much smaller numbers as hunter-gatherers as our eventual goal, we’ll never get there.

  • Nylene13

    I have a small family farm. With the veggie gardens and herbs and the fruit trees and the chickens eggs, we grow a lot of our own food. Used to sell at local farmers markets, and used to have milk goats too.

    Most Hunter-Gathers here in N. America gardened too. As far as the hunting goes-humans do not really NEED to eat meat. And it is not healthy.

  • Jeff

    Both of your statements in the 2d paragraph are false.

    There was no agriculture where you live until the colonizers invaded, and there was only a tiny amount in the entirety of what is now the western U.S. Even in the eastern U.S. there was only a small amount of agriculture, and most groups were hunter-gatherers. But even more important is that this is largely irrelevant. Agriculture is ecologically harmful regardless of who is practicing it and how they’re doing so.

    As to eating meat: humans evolved eating meat and have done so for their entire history. We need meat in order to get vitamin B-12, and wild meat and eggs are the only natural sources of it (agriculture is unnatural, so I excluded farmed meat, dairy, and farmed eggs).

    As to vegan and vegetarian attitudes toward eating animals, a Yaqui friend once said that you’ll never find indigenous people who are vegetarian, because they don’t discriminate against certain forms of life, in this case meaning plants. I couldn’t agree more. Just because plants don’t relate to life the same way as we or other animals do, that doesn’t mean that they don’t mind being eaten. In fact a scientific experiment several decades ago proved that plants don’t even like being cut.

  • Nylene13

    First of all, where I live now is not where I grew up.

    And second of all, I don’t regard small family or trial gardens as “agriculture”

    Industrial Agriculture is the problem, not small family organic backyard or even community gardens.

    Humans did not evolve eating meat. While they may have occasionally eaten some meat, it was not their primary food.

    You admit eggs are a source of B12. While eggs are technically “meat”-without a rooster nearby -there is NO way it is actual meat -as in a living animal.

    And you forgot a common source of meat-Insects.

    Of course plants are living creatures. But they are not animals, and plant eating animals -eat plants. Of which humans are. While humans may occasionally eat meat, they are Primarily Vegetarians. Or-they should be, based on their VERY long gut digestive systems.

    We Humans have the bodies of our ancestors-Apes.

    Apes are primarily Vegetarians.
    Although they do enjoy a good bug now and then.

    Tell me, how did your non-discriminating friend feel about Cannibalism?