Pyle: Land's value is not about its 'beauty'
"Magnificent desolation." Col. Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, on the moon, July 20, 1969
To hear Utah Congressman Rob Bishop tell it, the decisions to be made about the future of the mostly wild and mostly government-owned lands throughout the American West are best made in terms of what's pretty.
How very "Hunger Games" of him.
In a visit with The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board the other day, Bishop patiently explained how he hopes to peel some Eastern Establishment members of Congress away from the idea that large portions of the West need to be preserved, in wild or near-wild conditions, just by showing them some pictures.
He offers a side-by-side comparison. One photo is of a verdant, tree-rich section of forest, which Bishop accurately describes as the popular image of a national park.
The other is a shot of a dry, scrubby patch of what the congressman calls, in a contemptuous tone, "Sagebrush land." It is, he suggests, a vista that would actually be aesthetically improved by the addition of a drilling rig or two.
Bishop explained how he is making progress with some of his colleagues by asking them whether they really want to spend all that tax money, mostly through the Bureau of Land Management, to preserve such ugly scrub country. It's the logic of Gilbert and Sullivan's Lord High Executioner: "They'd none of 'em be missed."
Bishop used to teach civics, so when he describes how ideas are presented to Congress and how decisions are made, attention must be paid.
But he clearly wasn't qualified to teach biology. If he were, he'd know that the ecological value of any expanse of land can never be measured by its beauty.
For one thing, not everyone has the same idea of what's beautiful. For another, nature is replete with things that are uninspiring, or downright ugly, in most human eyes, yet fill key ecological niches. Vultures. Hyaenas. Dung beetles. Maggots. And, as Bishop himself would probably agree, some sessions of Congress.
The concept of preserving only land that is picture postcard worthy, turning the ugly stepsisters over to drillers, miners or ATV riders, is rooted deeply in biological ignorance, accidental or willful.
It is the thinking shown when, say, ATV riders describe portions of southern Utah as a "moonscape," lifeless, and with no better use than as a playground for very expensive toys.
But the Earth is lifeless in very few places. Life exists inside molten rock and in the frozen antarctic.
And Mother Nature makes no mistakes. The variety of plants, and their roots; critters, and their prey; water, and its often hidden pathways; add up to a web of life that keeps it all going.
Bishop also decries the indisputable fact that, just about the time Utah was ascending to statehood, the American habit of turning federal land over to the states or selling the land and giving the states a cut fell out of favor. That's why almost none of, say, Ohio, is federal land, while large majorities of Utah, Nevada and Montana are.
Of course, sensibilities change. Otherwise, we'd still be ruled by men who wore long hair, short pants, wouldn't let their wives vote, owned human beings like cattle and thought tobacco was good for you.
The feds owe the whole country, not just Utah, a more careful accounting of the lands they own. Where to drill, where to mine, where to do absolutely nothing.
But those decisions should be based on a knowledge of biology, not a shallow version of landscaping curb appeal.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, dropped his family's camera in the Great Salt Lake last week, and has had just about enough nature, thank you.