Thomas F. King delivers a crushing blow to the current state of environmental and cultural protection in the United States. I was surprised at the level of defeatism in this book until I the author noted he was writing during the Bush administration. I remembered back to the frustration held by many with some of the environmental policies during that time period. The pessimism King caries through this book was prevalent among writers for those eight years. While I have virtually no experience with conservation protection in relation to King’s long tenure as a consultant, I can empathize with his sense of bitterness towards the status quo of the early 2000s. While I might argue things have changed slightly and King may be experiencing the wax and wane of U.S. politics, I do agree with two of his major themes: laws and bureaucracies cannot alone protect our heritage. These problems are not unique to environmental and cultural protection, and the ineffectiveness of laws and bureaucracies rarely completely stops groups from demanding change from the government. I may be oversimplifying, but I think many of these political fights can be reduced to majority rule. If King is unsatisfied with the current state of conservation he shouldn’t point to (as Zach put it) conspiracy theories, and instead look to public awareness.
The problem with laws
Throughout the book, the author quotes the language of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other laws that are supposedly intended to protect important places from change. His many examples of groups skirting the language to do as the please proves just how big the holes are in these laws. This is true, but I think King may be reading too far into NEPA. There are many examples of NEPA working to blockade construction on protected lands. Yes many places are disputed, and big business or federal agencies have an upper hand with teams of lawyers to plead their case. King makes the fight for conservation seem like David vs. Goliath, and perhaps it is, but he forgets to mention the importance of public officiers. Perhaps because he’s writing during a particularly Red time-period, King omits the fact is there are politicians, judges, and even lawyers willing to fight to keep historic or culturally significant places in tact.
The problem with bureaucracies
King takes offense to the barriers created to keep the public out of the conservation conversation. Things like jargon, shady attempts at “consultation,” and dodging the questions put forth by the public create a government that is not listening to the public. I was particularly drawn to the example from the Arizona BLM director’s role in the Topock Maze. Without reading the director’s letter I can see how she failed to represent the public interest.
Overall King makes a pretty good sales pitch for the sad state of conservation, which leads into some decent prescriptions for change. I trust his experience in the field reflects just how difficult it might be to try defending a place against development. I can sense his bitterness towards the laws and bureaucracies he sees as defenses against developers. He may be exaggerating the problem to justify some of the more radical ideas he has for improvement (a constitutional amendment for example). I see this book kind of like the infomercials for crazy contraptions. He’s making reality seem hopeless without his product. Despite the hopelessness, I remain naively hopeful we can strike a balance between conservation and development with the laws and departments we already have.