In the kernel of 19th century New York, noted American artist Thomas Cole agonized over the often complicated relationship between mankind and nature in his painting The Oxbow. The Romantic-era image illustrates a quiet, overdeveloped Connecticut Valley on one end, and a remorseless thunderstorm above unmarked forests on the other. Through the use of evident juxtaposition, Cole captured an ongoing struggle to protect public lands in the midst of human expansion and progress, and, in many ways, helped kick off the modern conservationist movement.
Nearly 200 years later, Cole’s melee continues after the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed an environmental package so controversial, President Barack Obama vowed to veto should it reach his desk.
The bill, known as H.R. 5538, proposes funding for the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and related agencies for 2017, but includes some contentious amendments.
While the bill increases overall funding for the National Park Service, it cuts the Land and Water Conservation Fund, obstructing future attempts to secure new public lands and curtail mountaintop-removal coal mining (MTR).
MRT requires removal of a summit to reach coal seams, primarily in the Appalachian region of the United States. While many in the industry cite the economic and safety benefits of MTR, several scientific journals, including Science, linked the practice to the heavy degradation of forests, putting inhabiting endangered species at risk. Local communities are also damaged. Those exposed to coal-related practices over a long period of time are at greater risk of pulmonary disorders, lung cancer and heart disease, according to other Science studies.
Another amendment within the bill would cut two percent from the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and deny funding to implement rules under the Clean Air and Water Acts.
Bridget Spielberg, an educator for Rocky Mountain National Park and surrounding heritage sites takes issue with one amendment in particular.
“The bill would make it impossible for the Department of the Interior to partner with private organizations to help expand and protect heritage sites in parts of Colorado,” she says. “We regularly do this to help conserve and educate others about these sites, and this amendment is an unnecessary strain on our efforts.”
The National Park Conservation Association refers to these amendments as damaging “policy riders,” and publicly opposes the bill, says Senior Media Relations Manager for the NPCA Eric Bontrager.
“For the health and well-being of America’s national treasures, the environment and climate on which they rely, and the long-term preservation of resources, we urge opposition to (H.R. 5538) if these riders are not removed,” reads the association’s official position submitted to the House days before.
H.R. 5538 isn’t expected to make it past the Senate without meaningful adjustments, but park rangers agree on the importance of advocating for the protection of our shared lands during congressional tension.
Spielberg encourages others to respect and appreciate public lands by taking conservation into their own hands. She suggests getting involved with your local park programs.
“Most of us live within driving distance of some sort of protected land that could use an extra set of hands,” she says. “Even if just to help clean up, or learn about daily conservation practices. Volunteer in a wildlife rehabilitation center, teach a summer class if you’re qualified, there are so many programs in need of help. Monetary donations also go a long way in allowing our rangers to do their jobs.”
Rob Tasten, a volunteer ranger for Cuyahoga National Park, says the key to maintaining parks is to leave no trace.
“If you camp, don’t leave food out, it attracts wildlife and puts both of you at risk. Be sure your campfire is completely snuffed out, take everything you came with back with you. Don’t take ‘souvenirs’ like rocks out of the park. If everyone did that, our parks would exist only on the coffee tables of visitors.”
Other Ranger Tips for Conservation:
1. Clean up trash if you see it — even if you didn’t produce it.
“As long as it’s safe to pick up, do the earth a favor. If you’re uncomfortable cleaning it up, tell a ranger,” Tasten says.
2. Leave wildlife alone.
“Photographing from a distance is fine, but closing in on even timid animals can agitate them,” says Spielberg. “If you’re bitten, parks can be forced to euthanize the animal for a preventable event.”
3. Use recycling bins.
“Most parks have convenient space for trash and recyclables for a reason,” says Spielberg.
4. Properly dispose of lighter fuel and kerosine and bonfire equipment. Failing to do so can cause a dangerous situation for the park and the next campers. If you’re unsure what to do with your canister, ask a ranger.
5. Watch your step, but have fun.
“Don’t put yourself in a situation that could end in the necessity for a rescue. It’s ok to turn around, and there’s no shame in saving rangers time and resources,” Tasten says. “But be sure to enjoy your time wherever you might be. These are your lands after all.”