Paul Andersen: Fair Game
October 24, 2011
While he’s visiting the Mountain West this week to talk about jobs, President Obama ought to take the time to see more than airports, freeways, hotels and auditoriums. Obama needs to recognize a legacy opportunity in preserving our wild Western lands with a linkage to protecting local jobs and prosperity.
Since jobs are the driving force in politics today, Obama should understand that jobs and wild Western landscapes are mutually inclusive. Here’s why.
People from around the world visit the American West because of its stunning beauty. They come from every city, state and continent to marvel at the glories of our wild public lands. A fount of spirituality rises up in them the moment they enter our sacred cathedrals of nature.
For most Americans, there also occurs an upwelling of patriotic love for our Western panoramas. It was these wild lands that kept our country young and vibrant by forging the institutions and mindsets of democracy during the expansion of the frontier.
People visit the West today to experience these same potent impulses. They also spend money. Communities bordered by Forest lands, BLM and National Parks – Aspen is among them – benefit financially from the wild lands surrounding them through ecotourism, a clean, sustainable, dependable economic engine.
Aspen has thrived on ecotourism for more than 50 years. While many of our visitors come for cultural amenities, everyone appreciates towering peaks, rushing rivers and forested valleys. It is important to remember that Aspen’s rich cultural amenities were established here because their benefactors were originally attracted by natural beauty.
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In neighboring Utah, the Red Rock Deserts of Canyonlands equally attract visitors from the world over. Within the serpentine twists of wild river canyons and among towering sandstone pillars and temples is a transcendent world of timelessness and utter silence, a place author Wallace Stegner had in mind when he described pristine western lands as “the geography of hope.”
According to a survey by Headwaters Economics, the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which was protected 15 years ago under President Clinton, has benefited the local economies of Garfield and Kane counties, Utah, by boosting population 8 percent, jobs by 38 percent and real personal income by 40 percent since the monument was established. A similar trend is reflected by 17 other national monuments nationwide.
Better yet, the Grand Staircase is not a partisan divide. A study by Republicans for Environmental Protection shows 66 percent of Republicans support the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument. Wildlands have high value, not only for the environment and tourism, but as a nonpartisan bond with the heritage of our national inheritance.
Wildlands in the West are imperiled, however, by short-sighted land use policies and misguided resource management. They are routinely drilled, mined, logged and dammed, even though the values they hold are irreplaceable for legacy, scenic, psychological, recreational and spiritual values – values that forged the American character.
Barack Obama plans to come West this week to talk about jobs, but he’s missing something if he fails to recognize the deeper values of the land itself. People live in the West because of the mountains and deserts and the recreational opportunities they afford. By protecting these threatened places, Obama could give local communities an economic edge while maintaining a vital and inspiring geography for legions of visitors.
Obama is a city boy, but I invite him to break from his urban confines and journey into the Western wilds to see for himself what forged this country into a bastion of democracy and what stirs our sense of independence today. I invite him to gain exposure to something greater than himself, something innately humbling and clarifying. I invite him to dare to be one of the few presidents to sleep on the ground, nestling in the loving bosom of the earth beneath starlit heavens.
To be honest, Obama is traveling to Denver this week because he needs to win Colorado in 2012. His support for Western wilderness could reveal him, not only as a consummate politician strategizing for regional votes, but as a president who follows Stegner’s words by consecrating for all Americans, and for our global visitors, “a geography of hope.”
Perhaps a grand vista seen through the clear air from a mountain peak or a meditative moment in a serene, slick-rock canyon could awaken in the president a knowing sense that preserving Western landscapes is as essential to the national interest as the security of jobs and a sound economy. It can also be important to the electing of presidents and building their legacy.