Glacier National Park. (Glacier National Park Service/ )
Americans are heading into the final weeks before their summer vacations become just a memory. For me, the highlight was a visit to the Olympic National Forest in my native Washington State. The ocean and mountains rejuvenate my spirit and foster a healthy perspective on my place in the cosmos.
Alas, visits to our national parks and forests have been in a national decline since 1987, possibly as much as 25 percent according to 2008 data published by the National Academy of Sciences. Whether due to “videophilia,” or just a change in habits, the consequence may be a weakened identification with nature that contributes to public apathy about protecting it.
Here’s what should alarm all of us. Our nation’s leaders are leasing out public lands to oil and gas companies like never before. But is there any outrage?
Protest in the fashion of Woody Guthrie seems quite in order.
From the Gulf Coast to California, Woodie Guthrie rode the rails, hitched, and by whatever means necessary followed the “dust bowl refugees” from Oklahoma and Arkansas to the West, in search of a better life. “God blessed America” is the original title to Guthrie’s folk song but it was struck out and replaced by “This Land.” He wrote it in 1940 in New York City, just after he had arrived from Oklahoma. Most of us know it instead as “This Land is Your Land.”
The beautiful lyrics still ring in our ears:
From California to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulfstream waters, this land was made for you and me.
As I went walking that ribbon of highway, and saw above me that endless skyway, and saw below me the golden highway, I said: this land was made for you and me.”
The song has always been a protest, of sorts. History records that Guthrie was so irritated by the endless playing on the radio of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” that he wrote it as a retort, at first calling it “God blessed America for me.”
Guthrie’s powerful lyrics included the following verses that were never actually recorded.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.
According to Nick Spitzer of NPR Music, Woodie Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, may know why: the ‘private property’ language. “This is the early ’50s, and [U.S. Sen. Joseph] McCarthy’s out there, and it was considered dangerous in many ways to record this kind of material,” she says.
For Millennials and those born more recently, this battle over public lands might ring hollow, or mean nothing at all. Maybe they don’t understand the term or relate to public lands — wilderness areas, national parks, and conservation areas. After all, we have a whole generation of youth living without experiences camping out in nature. Will they even ask themselves: “Is this land made for you and me?”
If my own two sons, ages 20 and 22, are any indication, they fear that powerful lobbies have the power to purchase at will the Congress and the White House. The public’s land and resources are too easily turned over to the “drill, baby, drill” gang.
Sadly, they are right. What’s happening is clear: This land, our land, the public’s land, is being seized in ever increasing measure for development. More precisely, it is being leased to oil and gas companies.
It is my worst nightmare to awake from camping, as I did this summer next to the French Broad River in North Carolina, to discover a bull-dozer clearing the public land for an oil rig. But this isn’t a bad dream, it’s commonplace around this land of ours.
The previous 112th Congress was the first since World War II in which not a single new acre of public land was protected for the public as a national park, monument, wilderness area or wildlife refuge. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, if you’re paying attention.
Instead, a study by the Center for American progress states that the Obama Administration has leased more than 6.7 million acres of public lands to oil and gas companies for drilling — more than double as much public land as it permanently protected for future generations. Overall, more than 37 million acres of America’s public lands are under lease to oil and gas companies for drilling.
For people of faith, this is about more than even changing policies which have been described as a “drill first” mentality, to an “equal ground” policy of both drilling and conservation of our public lands in equal measure.
It’s about saving a bit of God’s gift of plentiful natural resources for future generations. Call it a campaign to “save a bit of heaven.”
Why cast it this way? The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright in his book “Simply Jesus” puts it as follows: “Within Jesus’s world, the word ‘heaven’ could be a referent way of saying ‘God,’ and in any case, part of the point of ‘heaven’ is that it wasn’t detached, wasn’t a long way off, but was always the plan from which ‘earth’ was to be run. When, in the book of Daniel, people speak about ‘the God of heaven,’ the point is that this God is in charge on earth and will eventually set up his own kingdom there.”
One Millennialist, a young woman named Diane Umpierre, wrote on Facebook, “I never thought about it that way. We, our planet, is very much part of His kingdom, of heaven, of God’s universe.”
Exactly. Take it from a baby boomer, my generation sowed the seeds of this destruction, and yours will reap the consequences if we don’t act quickly.
There was a time when even Republicans “got it,” so to speak. Barry Goldwater, who was the GOP candidate for President in 1964, once wrote: “My mother took us to services at the Episcopal church. Yet she always said that God was not just inside the four walls of a house of worship, but everywhere — in the rising sun over Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, a splash of water along the nearby Salt or Verde rivers, or clouds driving over the Estrella Mountains, south of downtown. I’ve always thought of God in those terms.”
Since God has commanded us to “till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15) and that there will come a time “for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (Rev.11:18), then we better listen up and pay heed.
All of us together — elected officials, members of the faith community, and especially the young — ought to engage in an effort to protect it from the onslaught of development.
Mr. President, and Vice-President, that includes you. It’s your policy that is favoring oil and gas industries over public land protection. To be clear, I’m just advocating for parity, equal ground, a balance here. Is that too hard to defend?
I imagine that were Woodie Guthrie alive today, he would be singing about this. How ’bout it Arlo?
If “God blessed America’” as your father put it, then, for God’s sake, let’s save this land “made for you and me.”
Richard Cizik is president of the New Evangelical Partnership and spokesperson, Good Steward Campaign.