Carter Stelter: Outdoors Act would protect Utah public lands

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors enjoy the nearly-empty Bryce Canyon National Park, Wednesday May 6, 2020

In 1607, English settlers landed on the Eastern coast of what is now the United States and founded the colony of Jamestown. In those times, most of the continental United States was covered in forest and wildlife. Since then, as much as 90% of these forests have been cleared, destroyed, or removed.

This statistic is not meant to be alarming. Most of these forests were long gone before 1920 — over 100 years ago. But it puts in perspective just how dissimilar our nation is to the one our forefathers discovered. Much of the natural beauty of this continent has been lost, some necessarily, and much of it needlessly.

To that end, it is crucial that we take proactive steps in order to preserve America’s remaining natural beauty for future generations. Fortunately, the popular and bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act provides an avenue for us to implement such conservation strategies in a sensible way.

Wednesday, the Senate overwhelmingly passed this legislation, which provides full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that protects millions of acres of natural land from development. It also addresses the National Park Service’s deferred maintenance backlog, which totals more than $11 billion. This was a great step forward in the preservation of what we have left of this natural beauty.

The Great American Outdoors Act will prove especially critical for Utah given that 70 percent of our state’s land is publicly owned. Utah’s environment and economy simply would not be the same without a healthy supply of public lands. Beyond contributing to the state’s unmatched beauty — from Bryce Canyon to Zion — Utah’s public lands breathe life into an outdoor recreation industry that supports 110,000 jobs and generates $12.3 billion in consumer spending in our state each year.

Given the clear benefits that result from effective conservation efforts, I was surprised to learn that many conservative-minded people that I interact with regularly, and even many that I have great respect for, don’t pay much attention to the environment at all. This is a mistake.

In defense of my fellow conservatives, it’s not difficult to see why they have remained silent on these issues for so long. After all, to care about the environment, and advocate for its protection, is to align yourself with the optics of movements that conservative-minded people may not agree with. Environmental movements have both historically and recently been controlled and dominated by the left wing in the political sphere.

What makes their ignoring of environmental concerns even more baffling is that conservatism, at the root of the word, shares the same root as conservation — that is, they both relate to the idea of conserving. Why doesn’t conservatism then include conservation?

There are legitimate reasons why conservative-minded people, even those who may not directly care about the environment at all, should support its preservation. After all, the Great American Outdoors Act provides a case in point of conservatives heeding environmental concerns while holding true to their principles.

Conservatives are too often preoccupied with conserving culture, traditions and economic advancement, (which are all noble causes) and too little focused on conserving the great jewel of our American heritage, the environment. But the truth is that each of these things can be conserved simultaneously. Like our powerful economy and traditions, the natural environment is another component that molds the United States into that shining city upon a hill, so there is no reason for conservatives to ignore it at the expense of future generations.

Conserving the environment is not simply saving a few trees, or saving a scenic spot for a future summer camping trip. It is an acknowledgement that the majesty of the wild and the majesty of civilization need not conflict. It is a promise to secure the future of both. The Senate’s passage of the Great American Outdoors Act is part of a realization that we live in a universe bigger than ourselves, and that we must take the role as caretaker. It is a present for your children, grandchildren, and countless generations yet unnumbered that will live in the same world you now inhabit.

After all, who will conserve the beauty that is America if not us? Will our children? Perhaps, and perhaps not; it may very well be a challenge for every generation raised on this soil going forward. But one thing is increasingly clear: If we do not act now, they may never get the chance.

Carter Stelter

Carter Stelter is a student at Northridge High School and activist with the American Conservation Coalition.