Vacationing at Taxpayer Expense

Last week, I wrote an article here on on the problem of “roadless” forests and federally protected wilderness areas. In it, I suggested that the people who benefit most from such set asides are the same people who lobby for them in Washington: upper-middle and upper class white people who have the leisure time and the money to enjoy such amenities. I received angry responses condemning me for being an apologist for land-raping corporations and heartless developers. All who wrote were sure to point out what salt-of-the-earth folks they are. Statistics would indicate that they were probably lying.

Government records of national forest and park lands indicate that users have incomes considerably above the national average. People who head up to the mountains with their fly rods, tents, horses, and hiking boots are not exactly the same people who are working eighty hour weeks to keep their small businesses from going under. Nor are there a whole lot of inner city kids who take day trips up to Glacier National Park up on the Canadian border. In these degenerate times of self-hatred, the people who use national lands probably like to fancy themselves as downtrodden schmoes, but they are wrong. Leisure and travel are expensive commodities. Many people do not possess these things in enough abundance to enjoy the taxpayer supported public lands.

Given the history of modern environmentalism, this should not surprise us. The modern politics of “conservation” and “preservation” became popular in the 70’s when more and more Americans were enjoying disposable income and more leisure time. As the immediacy of economic viability receded for many people, more peripheral “quality of life” issues became more important. Young people from the middle classes began to band together in support of the new “green” politics. These new greens were not concerned with the same things as environmentalists of earlier eras. The old environmentalists were concerned with issues that pertained directly to the immediate health and safety of human beings. They were concerned with potable water, breathable air, and toxic industrial waste. Most of these issues directly impacted the lives of people who lived and worked in urban centers and along waterways. They concerned themselves with fairly obvious problems of filth, disease, and toxicity.

Modern green policies, on the other hand, deal with problems much less immediate. They deal with arsenic levels in water that might give you cancer fifty years from now, and they make a lot of noise about the spotted owl and old growth forests. Such things benefit the lives of remarkably few human beings. The people they do benefit are people who get a lot of pleasure out of viewing wildlife while riding their pricey mountain bikes who aren’t impacted by the lost jobs every time they pass through some ridiculously strict regulation on the cleanliness of water and air, or the development of forest land. Instead of keeping drinking water clean of sewage or uranium, enhancing eco-recreation for a singular class of people is the new motivation of preservation politics.

To witness this change in environmental priorities, one only needs to look at the modern hubs of environmental activity. Places like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boulder, Colorado are the places where modern environmentalism flourishes. Populated by people who are highly educated and highly paid, these places support a population keen on travel, leisure, and pristine wilderness. Thanks to the tax supports paid by all Americans, these people can engage in their leisure activities at a reduced price. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

Not content to meddle with their own country, these people want to extend their green agenda to foreign countries as well. Staging such keen events as the “Battle in Seattle” the new greens support world-wide controls on pollution and wilderness development. The industrial countries have no problem with such controls, but the third world isn’t quite so excited. Those environmental boors in the third world want to trash the environment so they can escape their desperate poverty and the scourges of disease, war, and rampant misery. Of course, most greens know nothing of genuine disease, war or misery, so they have hard time relating to those third world peasants who are abandoning the clean air of the country to breathe the filth in the city where they can afford to feed themselves. For most of those peasants, it would be a step up just to live at a standard of living equal to nineteenth century America where the buildings were covered with soot from the steel mills and other smoke-belching industries.

I should conclude by pointing out that I have nothing against people who have lots of money and lots of leisure time. People who make a lot of money generally do so because they provide a valuable product or service. Such people have a right to enjoy any kind of recreation they prefer. The problem arises, however, when such people think that it is acceptable to use the power of government to enhance their own leisure activities or to help them indulge in their personal preference for undisturbed wilderness areas. By promoting their preservationist agenda, the greens are saying that it is fine for some hairdresser in Tennessee to pay taxes that support the preservation of wildlife in a far off place that he or she will likely never visit. In short, modern green politics is a wealth transfer from the people who don’t benefit from such programs to those who do benefit. As it so happens, the people who do benefit have a lot more money than those who don’t. It’s socialism for the well-to-do. For most greens, who never miss a chance to congratulate themselves for their own supposedly boundless compassion for the poor, this would seem to be a pretty disreputable endeavor. Nevertheless, they manage to tell themselves that the low wages and lost jobs caused by their green policies will in some way end up benefiting those less fortunate than they. Of all the species that they are trying to help, though, the one that they are helping the least is their own.

February 14, 2001

Ryan McMaken lives in Denver, Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.