Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

This Land Is Your Land
distributed 8/26/05 - ©2005

Where I live in Colorado, there is an immense treasure which is so pervasive that it is easy to take it for granted, and so complex that it is difficult to comprehend. All around this state -- from high mountain peaks, to desert canyons, to high-plains grasslands -- many of our most distinctive and valuable landscapes are owned by the government.

The blessing of public lands is not unique to Colorado, but those treasures are an essential component of our collective identity in the Rocky Mountain West.

That hit home for me a few days ago, when I went to a small town in the foothills north of Denver for lunch with a colleague. On the way to that meeting, I passed near several city parks and two state parks. The scenery along the highways has been saved from relentless urban sprawl by numerous blocks of open space, purchased and maintained by counties. After lunch, I detoured a few miles into the mountains onto National Forest land where I could sit by a tumbling mountain stream for an hour of meditation and reflection. Just a little farther up that road, my friend went back to a conference that was being held next to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Within just a few miles, I experienced a great diversity of lands that are owned, not by individuals or corporations, but by some collective expression of "we, the people." Cities, counties, the state, and several branches of the federal government hold those lands in trust, to serve the common good.

My jaunt toward the mountains took me past lands of grandeur and great variety, which is part of my delight at living in Colorado. No matter where you live, though, "public lands" are probably an important part of your local landscape, ecology, culture and economy. On a national level, we all share in the responsibility of caring for these lands, whether we experience them every day, or whether we never visit distant sites.

At its best, the collective ownership of these lands is an enlightened expression of stewardship which seeks the long-term health of the entire natural community, including humans. There is a constant danger, though, that short-sighted perspectives, inadequate funding, "special interest politics," or simple overuse will degrade these lands.

Public lands are at the center of many of the most important and contentious issues around us. A few recent examples can help us see that common theme.

  • Snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park are a symbol for the debate about the purpose of national parks -- should they be managed to boost local economies, provide for recreation, or preserve natural systems? (Hint: the law creating the national park system clearly stresses the preservation role!)

  • The heated conflict about drilling for oil in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- which will soon come to the US Congress in a back-door budget resolution -- epitomizes the battles over the role that resource extraction should have on fragile and ecologically significant public lands. A similar issue is raised by the Bush administration's push to fast-track oil and gas leases on vast swaths of the Rocky Mountain and Intermountain West, especially those managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

  • The National Forests, historically known as a "land of many uses," long have been used (often with huge subsidies) for logging and grazing. In recent years, recreation has become a form of usage that involves far more people and has a greater economic impact. "Recreation" covers the range from hunting and fishing, to backpacking, off-road motorized driving, and downhill skiing -- many ski areas are built on leased Forest Service lands. There's a controversy this summer about the direct economic impact of recreation on Forest Service lands, with figures ranging from $11 billion to $111 billion. The balancing of those "many uses" and their impacts is a constant challenge for the Forest Service.
The stewardship of "the commons" -- whether the global atmosphere, the oceans, wildlife, or our public lands -- is an ethical mandate that is grounded in the biblical affirmation that "the Earth is the Lord's." It also takes seriously the ways in which these commonly-held resources are essential for our collective well-being.

While many of us have taken on some particular issue related to public lands -- oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge, the preservation of local open space -- the broader questions about stewardship of these lands usually have not been a significant part of our ethical consideration. Our ability to address specific issues will be enhanced when we explore the general themes that cut across the detailed policy questions.

Two programming options this fall provide opportunities for churches to increase their awareness, concern and action about public lands.

  1. The National Council of Churches has recently launched a new Public Lands Initiative to help people of faith answer the call to protect and redeem God's lands. A new staff person working specifically on this theme, and a collection of new resources provide guidance and encouragement to churches. On the website of the NCC Eco-Justice Program, there are ecumenical resources for worship, study and action. The worship materials are especially suitable for September 25, when Lectionary readings mesh with that weekend's National Public Lands Day.

  2. For our friends in the Rocky Mountain West, Eco-Justice Ministries is working with the National Council of Churches in planning a regional conference to be held in Denver November 4-5. Tending the Garden, Cultivating the Commons: Faith-Based Approaches to Shared Environmental Challenges will have sessions dealing with both public lands and climate change. Conference sessions will address theological perspectives, church programming, and public advocacy. See our website for more information.

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One other thought to ponder. US President George W. Bush calls Texas "home." Texas has far less land in public ownership (only 3%) than any other state. Could his Texas-nurtured lack of appreciation and support for public lands, his upbringing in a culture that celebrates privatization and property rights, be a factor in his administration's policies?

The care and attention that we give to public lands is important in protecting valuable resources. But our intentional stewardship of the commons also shapes our personalities and our ethics. For the sake of God's creation, and for our own sake, let's celebrate and care for these lands.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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