Word came to me just today that the Student Conservation Association has received a Take Pride in America award from the Interior Department for its efforts to combat invasive species in national parks. It's a notable honor for the SCA, which for five decades has brought volunteers into the parks, national forests and other public lands to do some good.
But -- and this no doubt promises to be a highly controversial "but" -- how good of a thing is this award?
The reason I raise that thorny question stems from the behind-the-scene players at the Take Pride in America program. While there are some long-tenured conservation stalwarts, such as the American Hiking Society, the National Audubon Society and the Izaak Walton League, you'll also find Unilever, the Motorcycle Industry Council, the Marine Operators Association of America, and the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, just to mention a few groups that many would argue are not as conservation oriented.
Have I become so cynical of big business that I question the motives of the SCA, which relies on the support of both private individuals and corporations to fund its projects?
No, not at all. The group does great work across the country, assisting federal agencies that in many cases just don't have the wherewithal, either financial or in terms of manpower, to tackle all the jobs they are confronted with.
So what's the big deal? I guess the answer to that question is another question: Why is big business so interested in contributing to the Take Pride in America program? That's where my cynicism lies.
Are groups such as the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, the Marine Operators Association of America, and the American Recreation Coalition -- all groups that look to public lands for their recreational outlets -- truly operating altruistically when they funnel dollars into programs such as Take Pride in America and the SCA? Or are there other motives at play?
Are these groups using their investments in Take Pride in America and the SCA, just to name two, to stealthily advance their incursions into public lands, be they national forests or national parks? More and more I'm beginning to think that's a question that shouldn't be so lightly dismissed by those of us who treasure the national parks in their current forms and who believe more motorized recreation, more commercialization, and more privatization will be ruinous and place the landscapes we cherish farther and farther away from all Americans, to whom they belong.
Some who have studied this issue much longer than I suggest that the administration's poor-mouthing when it comes to adequately funding the public-land agencies is a charade to hide what David Stockman of the Reagan administration dubbed "Starving the Beast."
Starve the "beast," which in this case happens to be the public lands agencies, and there will be nowhere for them to turn but to private groups and corporations. Already you see that in the privatization of campgrounds in national parks, the reliance more and more on volunteers to provide interpretation, and the proliferation of for-profit tour guides who are replacing Smokey-the-Bear-hatted rangers.
As one colleague put it to me: "The looming fiscal collapse of America is not an accident. Every tax cut, every dollar spent in Iraq, brings us closer to the day when the ideologues who have taken over America's government can say --- 'We are broke. From now on, the private sector will control everything.'
"Unfortunately, America has been hijacked and such things as corporate philanthropy and volunteerism are being abused by those who are, very successfully, bringing about a radical transformation of society and how the government interacts with, and serves, the people."
How cynical is that? More importantly, is it off the mark? How many of the businesses that help underwrite Take Pride in America are operating on a quid pro quo basis?
Derrick Crandall, who heads the American Recreation Coalition, once was quoted as saying that, "... meeting the nation's fast-growing and fast-changing recreational needs can't be done well with today's aging and crowded facilities. It can only be done with new tools - new fee authority, higher appropriations, and expanded partnerships with the private and public sectors."
Rising costs can't be avoided, but should our public lands be given over -- either by deed or by contract -- to corporations whose prime objective is to make money? If you think today's park entrance fees are excessive, just wait until that day arrives.
Last fall, while writing on Director's Order 21, I stumbled across a now-65-year-old quote from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a pretty good capitalist even by today's standards, one who gave roughly $25 million of his own fortune to forward the national park cause. You can find the quote at the bottom of this rather lengthy post, but if you're in a rush, here it is:
"I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatest of the human soul set free."
No quid pro quo there, is there?
Hopefully my growing cynicism is unfounded. But when I see groups such as ARC, the snowmobile manufacturers, and the personal watercraft industry appear before congressional subcommittees to demand more access to our national parks, I think there's something lurking out there that isn't necessary altruism.