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Opinion: The Great American Outdoors Act drew bipartisan back-patting. But what are we celebrating?

Picture this: a caricature of former President Richard Nixon doing dangerous motorcycle stunts in the mountains of New Mexico, wearing a leather jacket embroidered with “Eco-Warrior” across the back. I call it “Tricky Dick Irony.”

Nothing felt more ironic than learning that Nixon, infamous and unpopular Republican president, wound up being ally and champion in the Taos Pueblo natives’ fight to regain ownership of their sacred Blue Lake in 1970, after years of federal mismanagement.

Fast forward to this week, with Sen. Cory Gardner and first daughter Ivanka Trump donning their own figurative eco-warrior apparel in Colorado to bask in the misguided praise of environmentalists and mainstream Democrats. They came to take advantage of a rare moment of bipartisan praise for the Great American Outdoors Act, which will fund much-needed improvements to our neglected natural wonders.

Dana Egleston

We expected this visit to be an ideal photo-op that frames the legislation as a win for anyone concerned about conservation, and by proxy, the environment. This contemporary iteration of Tricky Dick Irony, however, lacks one major facet when stacked against the original: sincerity.

During the signing of the Blue Lake Bill, Nixon emphasized the restoration of ancestral land to the Taos Pueblo was “long overdue ‘justice,’” citing worship of the sacred land predating any “organized religion” in the U.S.

Don’t expect any semblance of that integrity from Sen. Gardner or the Trump Administration. This is greenwashing beyond any marketing professional’s wildest dreams.

While the proposed intention of the Great American Outdoors Act, funding backlogged projects throughout our crumbling national park system and supporting public lands and waters, is valid and necessary, many are skipping over where the new money comes from.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Wake up, everyone. It’s dirty money.

The Act is funded by federal receipts from the “development of oil, gas, and coal” infrastructure. In other words, money to save our earth flows only if we agree to punching more holes in it to let the tainted money out.

When we think about climate justice, there must be room for playing the game, while breaking the game. There is no perfect solution, and we often have to work within the constraints of the flawed system that already exists, while aiming for radical improvement in the future. But the cost of this compromise is far from negligible, and glossing over it in search of a rare moment of agreement is concerning at best.

Kabir Green, director of federal affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said as much in a statement: “We obviously oppose incentivizing oil and gas drilling.”

Except that’s exactly what this self-congratulating bipartisan coalition has done.

“But the fact is, as it currently functions, LWCF [Land and Water Conservation Fund] is funded by existing offshore oil and gas revenue. As long as existing oil and gas leases are operating, directing fees to these vital conservation purposes makes sense,” Green said.

Doesn’t really make sense, though, when you actually stare it right in the face.

The Outdoors Act focuses on bolstering the conservation fund with up to $1.9 billion yearly, for neglected repairs on public lands and in national parks, and creating 100,000 jobs in this time of bleak unemployment. 

Fair enough.

Although anyone who understands climate science and the industrial processes that contributed to the climate crisis knows that funding the “planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect” through the direct destruction of that very land, like with fossil fuel infrastructure and extraction, is an epic paradox.

Gardner’s tainted money appeases many conservationists, who apparently feel they have to take anything they can get right now. The goal is that new funding sources will be considered soon, but the “bag” must first be secured. “We won’t use this dirty money forever!” — is that how the slogan goes?

Requiring dirty carbon money to support natural climate solutions, like those the conservation fund would provide — mitigating carbon from the very fossil fuels that fund them—is the type of thinking that got us here from the start.

Regardless, it passed. And now younger generations of environmentalists are left wondering which parts of Sen. Gardner’s voting record and campaign funding history lead anyone to buy the idea there won’t be a new rush on oil and gas leases justified by arguments of, “It’s for the land!”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The fact that Sen. Gardner introduced any piece of legislation that can be spun as “environmentally friendly” is actually a flashing, neon arrow begging us to ask, “What’s going on?”

The administration is aligning with a cause that looks noble to the growing masses concerned for the future of our planet and rising unemployment with the “most significant and historic conservation accomplishment in 50 years.” This is misdirection, so we forget about gutting dozens of other key environmental regulations, including the most recent destruction of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Sen. Gardner is reframing himself as the climate candidate who delivers in the race against former Gov. John Hickenlooper, and ensuring that the oil and gas industry gains a bit of job security in this troubled time. A Hail Mary for the Trumps.

The Bureau of Land Management tweeted on Wednesday that in “championing” and signing the Great American Outdoors Act, President Trump was “ensuring a lasting legacy of conservation.” Democrats and environmental groups that have signed onto this devil’s bargain are surrendering much of their right for Trump Administration outrage.

So let’s compare two love-to-hate presidents, each of whom crept out of their respective woodworks with uncharacteristic legislation in forestry and land use. If it’s Tricky Dick’s administration that comes out morally superior in this contest, we all should question exactly what we are celebrating here in 2020.

Keep an eye on crony Cory and some of his new “bipartisan” allies, they’ve got big plans for the nation’s outdoors. And they all lead to more fossil fuel extraction.


Dana Egleston is a writer, science communicator and environmentalist living in Denver.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.


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