This morning I received an email from Credo, one of the many petition mailing lists I’ve ended up on. “Protect Joshua Tree from the Eagle Mountain hydropower plant,” it read and I thought, wait a minute, shouldn’t our parks already be protected?
Ever since Grant signed Yellowstone National Park into federally protected law, the US has set aside terrestrial and marine areas to be conserved and protected, national parks receiving the highest authority once ratified by Congress. Congress decides just how protected these parks will be on a case by case basis depending on a number of reasons, economic above all. If you know anything about Congress, you know it’s controlled by industry, industry that needs resources, resources that exist on public land, pristine resources not yet devoured by free markets.
John Muir, one of the patriarchs of the parks system, fought tirelessly, nearly until his death to prevent the O’Shaughnessy Dam from flooding the beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley, known as Yosemite Valley’s sister valley before being reduced to a granite reservoir. San Francisco didn’t have much water at the turn of the century but they had an abundance of political power. Against Muir and many other opposition, the dam was built and exists today, even as the group Restore Hetch Hetchy has concluded the dam could be removed and allow the Tuolumne River’s water to collect in reservoirs downstream without reducing San Francisco’s volume.
Parks may be for the people but in a country with a representative government complete with a Senate, who has seen its democracy chipped away by money and special interest, our National Parks are simply investment properties you get to barbeque at before a buyer shows up.
The latest development in Joshua Tree is a familiar one. In fact, the exact site of the proposed hydroelectric plant was once the proposed location of a landfill. In a parched desert, in a drought-stricken California, we are one approval away from a plant that would pump nine billion gallons of water from our tapped aquifers. While the Parks Service opposes the project, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under President Obama, who is often hailed as a climate champion, has greenlit the project which is now it the hands of the BLM for final approval before breaking ground.
No public comment, no consideration to presumed protection standards, the government has relied on the analysis of the developers that this is for the greater good, an effort to store energy created by solar and wind. A noble cause to justify a regressive and irresponsible one.
All this reminds me of Raymond Carver’s short story Chef’s House. In it, Wes is a recovering alcoholic living in a friend’s cottage by the ocean. Wes’s wife, who hasn’t been with him in two years, joins him there. Things are going well, Wes isn’t drinking and his marriage appears to be mending until Chef tells Wes that he’s renting the cottage to his daughter and the couple must move out. It appears, at the end of the story, that the reprieve of good fortune was all for not and Wes would once again unravel.
Is this the fate of our parks? Will the legacy of America’s best idea be one of futility? Will we protect our land from peril, foster healthy behavior and mend our relationship with nature only to be unraveled by eviction when a more important tenant arrives?
There is a duel value system to our parks. One party measures it on balance sheets and the other in their hearts. With two currencies at play, we will unfortunately never reach an agreement and we will be forced to fight for the protection of wilderness regardless of laws, acts, gatehouses or placards.
Please take the modest effort to sign the petition to prevent Joshua Tree’s exploitation here.