Debate Continues Over Protection or Exploitation of Public Lands


Among the many planks in the 2016 Republican Party platform that are anathema for progressives,

one has not gotten the attention it deserves: A call to "convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states." It’s part of a dangerous and growing movement on the right to decimate our national parks and forests and wilderness and wildlife preserves by turning them over to be sold and commercially exploited. The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon at the beginning of this year represents the militant edge of this effort.

A counterweight to this call to loot our national natural treasures are some books and documentaries that offer excellent entertainment while also being informative on the roots of the struggle between those who wish to preserve our often beautiful, wild and ecologically valuable American natural heritage and others who would destroy it. One recent book that spotlights the issue and reads like a vivid movie unfolding on the big screen is "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America" by Timothy Egan.

At its center is what's known as The Great Fire of 1910 that blazed across some three million acres in Montana, Idaho and Washington – considered the largest forest fire in American history. Egan's telling of its beginnings and the fight to contain the fire, how thousands tried to escape its dangers and its ultimate toll is a gripping thriller of a tale. Yet there's more to the book than that engaging story.

Its heroes are Theodore Roosevelt – back when Republicanism wasn't a near-danger to the republic – his friend Gifford Pinchot, who help him found and then headed up the Forest Service, and the young idealistic rangers who shone in the battle against the fire and the effort to save lives. The villain, as usual in our national history, is rapacious capitalism and its forces in business and Congress. And of course there's the wild card of Mother Nature.

Pinchot was one of those eccentric and passionate American characters that have made a positive difference in our land; a man of wealth and privilege who valued the wild lands of the West as much as the first President Roosevelt. The men who he first recruited to the cause took to their mission with courage and zeal.

An episode of PBS's "American Experience" that premiered last year also titled "The Big Burn," and based on the book, offers another means to witness the ferocity of the fire that left some 100 people dead and wiped out growing towns in the region. Egan's book enhances the story with its surrounding context. His preceding tome of the Dust Bowl, "The Worst Hard Time," is another worthy and enlightening read on a pivotal dynamic between man and nature in America.

They're not the only works of late that spotlight our public preserves. Historian Douglas Brinkley's 2009 Teddy Roosevelt biography, "The Wilderness Warrior," delves even more deeply into the 26th president's noble love for America's natural beauty and treasures and preservation of our wild lands. And today's most visible and quite prolific public historian, Ken Burns, also weighs in on the subject with his six-part documentary: "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."

It's not just the GOP and forces of commercial exploitation that threaten our treasures. As climate change results in extreme weather, the precious remnants of wild America are in greater danger. One of the genuine reasons to love America is the many wonders of the natural environment across this continent. We are at a critical crossroads politically and ecologically in this matter. These works all entertain, educate, illuminate and hopefully also motivate good citizens to cherish and protect what's indeed beautiful and – to rescue the word from its Trumpian misuse – great about America.

Populist Picks

CD: Goin’ Your Way by Neil Finn + Paul Kelly – In my estimate there's few if any literate contemporary rock-pop singer-songwriters of greater talent and heart than the two talents from the other side of the world who teamed up for this two-disc, 29-track concert album: New Zealander Neil Finn of Split Enz and Crowded House fame and Australian Paul Kelly, a star in his homeland who is woefully overlooked here. It's a treasure chest of superb singing and harmonies, sharp and tasty arrangements and songs as intelligent and appealing as any written in recent times.

Documentary Film: Altman – One of the most adventurous and truly independent filmmakers of our day was Robert Altman, who gets compelling just due in this movie that traces the origins of his vision through his many films of merit – even those that may be flawed. Superb interview sequences and testimony from his family, friends, associates admirers illuminate the cinematic meaning of "Altmanesque," answered directly throughout by notable figures from the film world.

Documentary Film: Sugar Ray Robinson: The Bright Lights & Dark Shadows of a Champion – Progressives may rightly decry the "sweet science" of boxing – like football and NASCAR, sports that mankind may need to evolve away from – but it's still an art, however violent, to behold, and was one of the ways if not the first that African-Americans could advance into and excel in the pantheon of mainstream America. Widely considered the best fighter ever, Robinson embodied many of the merits, dangers and contradictions of the sport in his vivid life story.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. He edits Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2016

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