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Today no branch of the Federal Government, except perhaps the Internal Revenue Service, so personally touches the lives of so many Americans as does the Department of the Interior. It's the principal manager of an enormous treasure of publicly owned resources—coal, oil, gas, hard minerals, soil, timber, grass, water. It prospects for these resources, catalogs them, determines when and how they may be used and by what private and public interests.
Interior is the trustee of 735,000 Indian and Aleut citizens and influences the day-to-day affairs of these Native Americans. Interior is the guardian of 783 species of plants and animals judged to be in grave danger of disappearing forever. In many areas of natural science—geology, hydrology, archaeology, zoology, botany—Interior functions almost as a great national university, providing our principal research and information. Interior maintains most of the historical places and shrines, scenic beauties and natural wonders that Americans most admire. With no close competitor, Interior is the U.S.'s most important recreation institution, public or private. Last year 291,163,000 visits were made to national parks—a gate, so to speak, that surpassed that drawn by all professional sports. In addition, some 30 million Americans—hunters, fishermen, campers, backpackers, amateur naturalists and other recreationalists—availed themselves of facilities and natural resources found in wildlife refuges, wilderness areas and other lands managed by Interior. The department has approximately 75,000 employees operating on an annual budget of $6 billion—and it generates revenues, in the form of fees collected from users and lessees of Interior resources, of about $10 billion a year.
Land is the elemental source of Interior's profits, as well as its authority, wealth and importance. It is the de jure administrator but de facto owner of 32.7% of the U.S.; that is, of about three-quarters of a billion acres of public land (190 million acres are in the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, but Interior oversees mineral development on that, too). Its Park Service manages 80 million acres; its Fish and Wildlife Service, 90 million (mostly as wildlife refuges); and its Bureau of Land Management 341 million. The BLM is a catchall agency that tends to lands not set aside for parks, sanctuaries and forests nor claimed by states, homesteaders, railroad and highway builders or the military when the immense properties once owned by the Federal Government—including most of the area west of the Mississippi—were given away, sold and dedicated for special purposes.
In no other nation is there such a single, powerful agency with the mandate of Interior—in essence, to define, regulate and shape the relationship between man and nature. That Americans created a Nature Ministry is not surprising. Perhaps more than any other modern people, Americans brood and argue over the proper way to deal with natural resources. It's a matter of firm if subliminal conviction that the U.S. has been magnificently endowed, as if in a vast global lottery, with exceptional natural bounty and beauty. The continuing conflict concerns what to do with the winnings.
On the one hand, there's the inclination to exploit, develop and consume. On the other, there's a strong, sometimes almost mystical belief that the U.S. began as a clearing in the wilderness and that its society is a product as much of its natural history as of its social history. There's a folk sense, formalized by the most American of thinkers—the Emersons, the Thoreaus and the Twains—that the best of humanity flows from the undeveloped and wild elements of its environment; that man's character, pride and luck depend upon conserving and preserving these elements and generally treating nature as respectfully and reverently as he can.
America's interest in developing and consuming nature has not weakened in this century, but the concern about conserving and preserving it has grown much stronger. Underlying the conservation-preservation movement are three broad convictions:
First, it became obvious by the 20th century that if the U.S. continued to squander and corrupt its natural riches, the country would soon become a less prosperous, pleasant and healthful place.
Second, dig-and-dump, ruin-and-move-on exploitation ignored the fact that nature left alone has substantive, if difficult to quantify, social value. For a variety of reasons—recreational, therapeutic, scientific, esthetic and nostalgic—a number of Americans have found that wildish things and places improved the environment for them. As unspoiled nature became scarcer, the demand for it became greater.
Third is the ethical, at times almost theological, element in conservationist-preservationist philosophy. It has been expressed as Rocks Have Rights, which is a simple statement of an enormously complex metaphysical proposition. The first implication is that objects of nature have been endowed by somebody or something with more or less sacred properties. Thus, if we ignore or attempt to subvert the rights of nature, we profane and blaspheme the giver of them. In secular terms, we corrupt our humanity by acting unethically. Another inference is that, in dealing with nature, the possession of a bulldozer does not necessarily make it right to use it. Just as in war, elaborate ethical calculations may justify leveling a mountain of rock, but the mere ability to accomplish the act does not automatically justify it.
During the post-World War II period these views came to be regarded as nonpartisan in the U.S. The most comprehensive set of environmental laws ever written anywhere—the Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species and Environmental Policy acts—were passed during the Nixon Administration, working on a legislative groundwork laid down in the previous one of Lyndon Johnson. Their successors, Presidents Ford and Carter, supported and implemented the new laws.