Never-Ending Stories: Commerce Versus Conservation

Sep 11, 2013
Originally published on September 12, 2013 12:13 pm

Writing in the Washington Post recently, Darryl Fears points out that sometime during September, the U.S. Forest Service is liable to decide whether to allow or forbid the highly debated form of drilling known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on national forest property in Virginia and West Virginia, according to the forest service's proposed 15-year management plan.

"The decision," Darryl writes, "will settle a raging dispute between conservationists and the oil and gas industry."

It may placate this particular controversy: By definition national forests are managed while national parks are preserved. But the larger debate of commerce versus conservation has been roiling for decades — and will likely continue ad infinitum.

The North Dakota Debate

In North Dakota, for instance, fracking has brought much-needed jobs and financial benefits to an economically beleaguered state. But conservationists say that the expanding presence of oil exploration threatens the state's Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In April, the left-veering think tank Center for American Progress released A Boom With No Boundaries, a video narrated by Teddy Roosevelt's great-great-grandson Winthrop. The video raises questions about the long-term impact of fracking on the national park and its environs.

Ron Ness of the North Dakota Petroleum Council sees fracking from a different angle. Fracking, he says, has no impact on the land preserve. "In that area surrounding the park, there has been oil activity since 1954."

Today's petrotechnology, Ron tells NPR, "utilizes one-tenth of the land surface that traditional drilling would utilize, and the use of hydraulic fracturing enables that extended-reach horizontal-drilling technology to be economical. So, it could be said, hydraulic fracturing reduced the footprint of industry and allows our nation to become more energy secure while reducing threats to national parks and allowing us to tap the Earth's natural resources to build a strong economy and generate high-paying jobs."

And there you have the two sides of the fracking coin. "There is a never-ending battle in the United States over the value of public lands," says historian Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America and The Quiet World: Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960. "The conservationists talk in romantic terms of recreational assets and aesthetic beauty. Places like the Grand Canyon and the Everglades are seen as heirlooms. The laissez-faire capitalists tend to see conservation of public lands as socialistic government overreach and land grabbing."

Decades Of Disagreement

The factions have been arguing at least since the Adirondacks were fought over in the late 19th century, Doug says. "God is often brought into the discussion. The pro-parks crowd says that you find the almighty's best work in places like Redwoods National Park and the Okefenokee Swamp. These sacred spots are considered cathedrals.

"Developers, on the other hand, say that God put resources such as timber, iron and gold in the land for human use. Big money is poured into the fight over public lands on both sides."

The result is a hot historical mess. "It's a history full of stubbornness followed by compromise," Doug says. "No boundary is really ever safe from the maw of hyper-industrialization. Yet morality is usually firmly on the side of preservationists. It's a difficult dance, but in the end we have 59 national parks, 560 national wildlife refuges, and scores of state and municipal parks. The United States park system is the envy of the world."

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