My Turn: Commissioner promotes myths about public lands

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2003

Ernesta Ballard, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, presented three so-called myths about public lands in a speech Nov. 6. The first myth was that "public lands are managed for multiple use." This is not really a myth when one realizes that multiple use does not mean all possible uses and some uses are incompatible with others. Parks, for example, are commonly managed for more than one use, but on some public lands resource extraction is the de facto prime use. She also stated that "set-asides (such as parks and monuments) are not necessary for environmental protection" because protection "can be achieved through regulation." However, regulation obviously changes with the political climate, and therefore provides highly variable and unreliable protection at best.

The second myth was that "scientifically based assessments can provide the direction needed for public lands decisions." It is true that science is not infallible and that good science can seldom lead to certainty about the outcomes of land use practices. Nevertheless, science should certainly be part of the decision-making process because science often does give a basis for what is most likely to happen under various land uses.

Ballard said that politics can't handle uncertainty - but politics produces uncertainty about the outcomes of actions every day when the available scientific information is ignored or dismissed to suit a political agenda. Risk management choices need to reflect the available scientific information. That includes the acknowledgment of chains of interactions and cumulative effects in assessing the consequences of land use practices. The fact that some of these connections are highly indirect and even tenuous should not obscure the fact that many are very real and important. If, as Ballard said, "the cumulative effects cycle is deadly to common sense," it is only because common sense has not been used well - by all concerned - in judging their relative impacts and deciding which ones have priority.

Ballard also stated that "resource developers (are) still struggling to gain a foothold in the balanced-use world." A very strange statement, given the historical fact that the excesses of resource development engendered the environmental protection movement in the first place, in Alaska as elsewhere. Resource development needs to proceed in a scientifically informed way, accounting for environmental effects of that action as a matter of public responsibility, because our environment belongs to and affects all of us.

The third myth was that "land-specific planning can achieve consensus about allocation and use." She rightly noted that consensus is often impossible. But she then argued that public land planning, which includes adherence to processes designed to accommodate input from scientists and the public, has become so time consuming that "the important work of managing the land" has suffered. In other words, apparently management should proceed without planning - presumably without concern for environmental consequences or public input.

In Ballard's opinion, our "national pride (is) represented by our resource industries." That must be news to many of us! Surely Americans can find something to be proud of in our country besides (or at least in addition to) big business. Ballard denigrated "interest groups" when they are concerned about the consequences of resource development, without acknowledging that resource developers constitute some of the biggest and most powerful interest groups around.

Ballard closed her speech saying that "our public lands present the last bastion of determined ignorance." She quoted a World Bank report stating that governments should define and protect property rights instead of spending effort on more regulation, implying that it should be full speed ahead for resource development regardless of the environmental consequences. It seems to me that willful ignorance of environmental consequences, and the exclusion of good science and responsible planning from decision making about resource development, would be ultimately stupid in the long run. Those decisions should be made on the basis of as much information as possible; there is little excuse for saying that we didn't know the consequences of resource-development activities. Exclusion of public input, stemming from the values and opinions of many members of the public, regarding the use of public lands would be decidedly undemocratic - in a country that prides itself as a bastion of democracy.

• Mary Willson is an ecology researcher, consultant and teacher of graduate students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She lives in Juneau.

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