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Parks vs. profits

November 03, 2005

THERE IS AN OLD JEWISH TALE about a man living in a small hut with his wife, six children and mother-in-law. At his wits' end, he goes to a rabbi, who advises him to bring his goat into the house. Next week, the chickens. Then the cow. When the man can no longer stand the noise, crowding and odor, the rabbi tells him to take all the animals out -- and suddenly the house feels spacious and quiet.

What brings the story to mind are recent efforts in Washington to change the way our national parks and other federal lands are managed. Two dreadful proposals to strip protections from public land were modified after protest. Now they are simply very bad.

In August, the Interior Department proposed new rules that would have defined livestock grazing and mining as legitimate uses of national parks, even those as important to this nation's heritage and tourism as Yellowstone. The rules also would have allowed liberal use of noisy, polluting off-road vehicles and snowmobiles in the parks. The plan's author, Paul Hoffman, deputy assistant Interior secretary, advocated greater use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone in his former job as director of the Chamber of Commerce in Cody, Wyo.

The revised proposal removes the cows and the chickens, but it still smells of goat. It does not openly allow mining or grazing, but it would weaken standards on air quality and noise pollution in the parks. More important, it would change an important policy dating to 1918 that said conservation must take priority over recreation when there is a clash between the two. That's simply sound stewardship; without conservation, parks would become so dilapidated by overuse that there would be little left for future generations to enjoy.

Hoffman said his first plan was intended to stimulate discussion. We say there are more thoughtful ways to get a discussion going.

Then there is a proposal by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), who several weeks ago floated the idea of selling off more than a dozen national parks. In response to the predictable public outrage, Pombo's office said it was all just a joke. But then he produced serious, and almost equally unacceptable, legislation that would allow the federal government to sell land, including property in national forests, for $1,000 an acre to mining and drilling interests.

The buyers wouldn't even have to show that there are minerals on the property; they could eventually use it for, say, real estate development. This amounts to a giveaway of public land for private gain.

Pombo has already used this ploy with an earlier "plan" he floated to gut the Endangered Species Act. No bill came from that plan, but Pombo has since introduced legislation that simply damages the act irreparably with a giveaway to any property owners whose land is critical habitat for a rare bird or plant.

Surveys have shown that Americans treasure their national parks and forests and want them preserved. Demands for weakening federal protection of the land come not from the public but from industry. Compliant politicians and officials should not despoil land that belongs to the public with their metaphorical (or not) livestock -- and then expect the public to be grateful when they take away the cows and chickens but leave the goats.

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