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(DV) Berkowitz: Paying to Play (Part I)







Paying to Play (Part I)
Privatization of America's public lands is “common sense” environmentalism for the Bush Administration
by Bill Berkowitz
May 31, 2005

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"[T]he Bush plan sell[ing] off hundreds of U.S. Forest Service buildings and acres of land under the guise of shoring up the agency's sinking budget represents a massive change in our American notion of public lands, including our impressive national forests. They were acquired and are held by the government in public trust, supposed to be protected in perpetuity and passed in good health across the generations."

--Editorial, Albuquerque Tribune, May 3, 2005

In an era where the Bush Administration characterizes its environmental agenda as "common sense" environmentalism, a slew of front-burner issues including global warming, drilling for oil in the Artic, new legislation aimed at lifting the ban on offshore oil and gas drilling in the U.S., and increasing threats to the water we drink and air we breathe got little or no attention during last month's Earth Day celebrations.

One issue that many don't see as necessarily an environmental issue, and that rarely gets enough attention, is the growing trend toward privatizing America's public lands. Privatization is one of the most "insidious and all-encompassing developments" that will ultimately force Americans to "pay to play," at recreation areas all across the country, says Scott Silver, the Executive Director of Wild Wilderness, a Central Oregon-based environmental organization.

The issue of privatization reared its head in an unlikely manner recently when, in addition to the usual requirements being sought (expertise in dealing with budgetary matters, and an ability to organize and set work priorities), a new one was tucked into a job posting for a new director of tourism for the National Park Service. The new requirement, suggesting that the candidate be able to "create, nurture, and expand tourism programs that promote private sector support," had "environmentalists worrying about creeping commercialization and added strain on already overburdened parks," the Boston Globe recently reported.

"It smacks of heavy corporate involvement," Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the Globe. "Marketing tactics could influence policy and lead to promiscuous partnering. That would allow wholesale commercialization and 'Disney-fy' our national parks." In addition, Ruch pointed out, "With cutbacks in staff and maintenance, you have to question why they want to invest in increasing visitation."

"The goal remains to give guests a good experience in national parks," acting tourism director Edie Sean-Hammond said. "My successor will have to look at appropriate visitation -- in some parks there are places that have reached capacity and how to deal with that."

Wild Wilderness' Scott Silver is an old-school activist who got involved with environmental issues by being on the front lines of the fight to preserve free access to America's public lands. For more than a decade, Silver has been has been combating, monitoring and tracking the growth, lobbying expertise, and political influence of the recreation industry.

In a two-part interview with Silver, I had the opportunity to discuss a wide range of environmental issues including how his small organization got started and what it means to be a grassroots-based environmental group.

In Part 2, Silver talks about how privatization is changing America's public lands and the Bush Administration's environmental agenda.

Bill Berkowitz: Tell me how you got involved in environmental activism.

Scott Silver: I gave up a career in science and moved to Central Oregon in the late 1980s. I'd always dreamed of someday living in a small community in the Pacific Northwest, since wilderness travel and backcountry skiing were my passions.

Central Oregon has long attracted a great deal of tourism and recreational use, though back in the 1980s the nearby Three Sisters Wilderness offered plenty of opportunities to get close to nature. During the summer months the wilderness could get a bit crowded, but in winter, the experiences available to backcountry skiers were incomparable and solitude was all but assured.

My introduction to environmental activism began in 1990 when the local US Forest Service was entertaining two proposals that would have permitted commercial yurt-to-yurt ski touring within, and adjacent to, the Three Sisters Wilderness. I was concerned that the wilderness would be filled with paying tourists and, to put it bluntly, I didn't take kindly to the idea of finding a yurt village in my own favorite ski bowl.

BB: How did that battle develop?

SS: My best friend and frequent skiing partner, Dale Neubauer, set out to block these yurt-to-yurt proposals and we spent months learning about forest planning by studying the Wilderness Act. We came to the conclusion that these proposals were illegal so we began attending Forest Service meetings, referring to ourselves as "a couple of guys who appreciated the value of wilderness."

While circulating a petition asking that the Three Sisters be protected, we decided that we needed a name and chose "Wild Wilderness." Our mission would be to represent those in our local community who sought naturalness, solitude, challenge and inspiration in their outdoor recreational experiences.

BB: How did the mission of Wild Wilderness change?

SS: We won that yurt-to-yurt battle and went on to tackle the issue of snowmobiling. Each season the machines got more powerful, more noisy, more numerous and consumed more of the winter wild, so we found ourselves in competition with a growing number of non-motorized winter recreation groups who were looking to expand their own trail systems into those blank spots on the map used by our supporters. Over time we became champions of "undeveloped recreation" and fought a growing number of proposals to commercialize, privatize and motorize recreational opportunities on our surrounding public lands.

In 1997, Dale and I stopped by a local Forest Service office to pick up a pair of newly required recreational passes. The year before, Congress authorized the "Recreation Fee Demonstration Program" which permitted land managers to charge for access to, and use of, federally managed lands. We hadn't thought much about this program but we left their office with a flyer that, quite literally, changed our lives and began the transformation of Wild Wilderness from a local recreation group to what has evolved into America's most visible and vocal opponent of the corporate takeover of nature and the Disneyfication of the Wild. That Fee-Demo program was the creation of commercial and motorized recreation interests whose interest were 180 degrees different from ours.

BB: You have a lot of information on your Web site; when did you set it up and what were your plans for it?

SS: I was fortunate to have a good friend who taught web design at the local community college and he suggested that Wild Wilderness needed a web site so that people outside of Central Oregon could learn about these issues. With his help, I built the site in the late 90s and it quickly grew so large that it became difficult to keep properly updated. Today, we have an active e-mail network and we use that venue to keep our supporters, now in all 50 states, current on these issues.

BB: Does Wild Wilderness lobby, demonstrate, call to action, etc. on environmental issues? Is it a membership organization?

SS: In January 1999, Wild Wilderness incorporated as a 501(c) (3) tax-exempt, non-membership, non-profit organization. We organized national days of action in 1998 and 1999 that each involved dozens of protests in 10 or more states. Incorporating was needed, primarily, to provide legal protection and insulation for Dale and myself. When the Walt Disney Company threatened to sue Wild Wilderness in August of 1999, I was glad that their threats were directed at a legal corporation and not at me personally. Ironically, we were able to parlay the threat by Disney into media coverage in such disparate venues as the Earth First! Journal and Forbes magazine.

BB: Where does your funding come from?

SS: For all intents and purposes, we have no funding and do not waste any energy or resources doing fundraising. Wild Wilderness operates with a budget of less than $5,000 a years and all the work, including my own full-time efforts as Executive Director, is done on a volunteer basis. Over the years we've received small grants from Ben and Jerry's, Fund for Wild Nature and Patagonia as well as unsolicited contributions from individuals who support what we are doing.

BB: Where would you place Wild Wilderness in the constellation of other environmental organizations -- smaller and larger groups?

SS: We like to think of ourselves as perhaps the leanest, meanest and most influential small environmental organization in the country. Ten years ago we were indistinguishable from thousands of local advocacy groups each fighting to protect local areas from specific threats. Over the years, Wild Wilderness became synonymous with a fight to protect the wildness from industrial tourism and motorized "wreckreation."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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