As it works to open more land to mining, streamline environmental regulations, and roll out a major infrastructure package, the Trump administration has faced withering criticism from all corners of the environmental movement, particularly in the American West. Most environmentalists accuse the administration of waging nothing less than “war” on the public lands that characterize the mountain West and Pacific coast states. And for their part, more than a few folks within the administration and a number of voices throughout the conservative movement seem willing to paint past reasonable efforts to preserve wild areas as a sinister plot. But if one steps back from this visceral debate, it’s apparent both sides have a golden opportunity to work together to support intensive, urban development and agricultural efforts that can create wealth and protect nature.
No matter how often magazines like The New Yorker make them out to be sinister plots, the Trump administration’s efforts to change public lands policy in the West have had, simply put, only trivial impacts. For instance, changing the boundaries of two national monuments declared just days before the Obama administration left office is open to legal challenges and might even be a bad idea, but it’s hardly an act of war or a sign of total disregard for public lands.
On the other hand, typifying the Obama administration and environmental groups as sinister plotters is equally inane. Areas like the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah (which the Trump administration shrunk last December) can contain important historical treasures and unique environments worthy of protection. They can also be economic engines used for recreational activities. It’s likewise infeasible to suggest that huge tracts of unpopulated federally owned land be turned over the states entirely: few states want it and none really have the resources to do it prudently.
Rather than trying to resist every move of the Trump administration as many in the environmental movement are wont to do or to promote hair-brained schemes to devolve all land to states, both those who favor the environment and those who want to create more wealth should be able to come together around a new cause: building housing in places people want to live and easing the means to farm efficiently.
Housing and cities first. If Census Bureau projections are correct, about 75 million people — nearly the population of Germany — will be added to the United States between now and 2050, many of them in the West. This will put huge pressure on open space throughout the country, particularly near cities. Right now, onerous building, zoning and environmental regulations make it hugely expensive and sometimes impossible to build new things in areas where people most want to live. If it remains difficult to build housing near jobs in urban areas, people will simply live further out in farm and open public lands by necessity. Commutes will thus become longer, greenhouse gas emissions will increase and the environment will be degraded.
To feed an even larger population, farming will have to get more efficient still. This means using the best available agricultural technology — high-tech farm equipment, sophisticated fertilizers and up-to-date genetically modified seeds. There’s no problem with people eating organic produce or insisting on heirloom crops if they want to pay extra for them.
If Americans are serious about setting aside open spaces for their posterity, they need to make more room for people to live where they want to and produce food more efficiently. Intensive, economically efficient use of land where people live and grow food, indeed, is a necessary corollary to conserving natural areas.
Image credit: Johnny Adolphson