- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

Most Americans consider themselves environmentalists and conservationists. We all want clean air, clean water, abundant wildlife and wilderness to which we can escape.

I want those. I have worked hard to create and preserve these things. But, in recent years, I have watched the environmental movement become more extreme in its demands. To hear environmental groups these days, everything should be untouched wilderness. Public lands should be left wild and touched. Dams should be busted and reservoirs drained. Mineral and energy development on public lands should be stopped. Cattle and sheep should be shooed from public lands on which herds have grazed for 150 years.

Much of the public, lured by the glossy ad campaigns and the romantic notion of wilderness, have bought into these notions without considering the costs. Extremism in any area of our lives comes at a price. Environmental extremism is no different.

I smile when some people write to me about wanting more wilderness. In their letters, they talk about loading their families up in the RV and going up to these new wilderness areas to get away from it all, smell the pines, enjoy campfire-roasted food and reconnect with each other.

They don't understand what "wilderness" means. They don't understand these lands will be closed to all but the hardiest hiker. No roads. No vehicles, not even a mountain bike.

In embracing the romantic idea of millions and millions of acres of more wilderness, people don't understand that closing off our public lands to recreation, grazing, resource development and even efforts to prevent wild fires has staggering implications. Such a move would hobble our economy and our national security.

It would even affect our ability to do something as simple as switch on the light in the kitchen. Right now, Los Angeles' electricity comes from clean Utah coal that is within a 9-million-acre swath of land some environmental groups want to put into wilderness. If that happens, Los Angeles loses its abundant electricity and joins the rest of California on the roller coaster of fluctuating price and availability.

Ironically, implementing such extreme notions of environmentalism would also curtail our ability to enjoy the outdoors. It wouldn't just be the elderly and handicapped who couldn't walk these public lands. Without even a trail to climb, most families, youngsters, middle-aged people and anyone even mildly out of shape would never enjoy these lands.

If we closed off our public lands like this halted all resource development, recreation and grazing, the same public that supports the romantic notion would be outraged at the reality. Congressional phone lines would be tied up and our congressional offices crammed with angry citizens.

If we stop grazing on public lands, the price of meat will skyrocket. Pull out the dams, and electricity bills would go up sharply while the reliability of power would nose-dive. Stop the development of oil and natural gas on public lands and you'll see the result in your heat bill and the prices at the gas pump. Stop mineral development and the cost of the thousands of things in our daily lives with metal in them would climb.

Close down all our military training ranges on public lands and our national security would falter. Prohibit wildfire prevention on public lands and watch summer wildfires eat millions of acres of pristine forests each year.

If we do even half of what the extremists want, the simple pleasure of driving into a canyon to picnic in a national forest will become a memory from a bygone era.

Even urban transportation would become a nightmare. As we discovered with the Sierra Club's lawsuit over the Legacy Parkway, their extreme agenda even prohibits building needed highways on public lands near urban areas.

So the question becomes: Where do we draw the line? How do we protect our wild places, wildlife, clean air and clean water and still enjoy a strong economy and the ease of modern life?

Congress and the White House work every day to strike this balance. So do tens of thousands of public policy leaders around the country. We work to preserve the many good things about the American way of life including our prosperity, safety and beautiful public lands without sacrificing one for the other.

I wish we could come up with poetic ad campaigns and issue glossy calendars that reflect that complex balancing act.

I think it's easier to be a one-issue extremist. It's easier to slap a cute picture of a polar bear and her cub on TV as a warning against oil development in ANWR. Extremist groups can do that without mentioning that polar bears aren't even found in the region being considered for energy development. They can do it without a thought toward meeting this nation's growing energy needs because, hey, that doesn't happen to be their single issue.

It's left to those of us responsible for hammering out public policy to find that delicate balance among all of America's urgent, competing needs. That's a tough job whether you're in the White House, Congress or in state and city offices around the country.

It requires reasonable minds, a breadth of expertise and an adamant refusal to simplify our world for the sake of a great ad campaign. It requires compromise. Just like every solution to every problem that has plagued any civilization since the dawn of time, finding that balance requires compromise.

Some day I'd like to see a glossy calendar reflecting that hard reality.


James Hansen, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Utah, is chairman of the House Resources Committee.


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