Protecting the land is our job.

May 16, 2018

My freshman year in college, my mom gave me a book for Christmas. To this day it sits in a treasured place on a bookshelf in my home in Santa Fe. The book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian is the biography of John Wesley Powell.  As some of you know, Powell was a founding member of the Cosmos club.  In fact, the first meetings of the Cosmos Club took place in his home.  I remember thinking he was a pretty cool guy.  Fought in the civil war, explored the West, rafted down the Colorado River with only one arm. But more than those things, he was years ahead of his time.  He understood that the West was different than the East.  That may sound kind of obvious to you now, but back then, people didn’t get it.  They figured you could just drop seeds in the ground and plants would pop up.  But that didn’t happen and a lot of people suffered because nobody paid attention to what Powell was saying.

It’s fitting we’re at the club Powell founded to talk about a new vision for public lands, because Powell was nothing if not a visionary.  Not far from my home in Santa Fe, there’s a place that was very much like the Cosmos Club.  It’s called Chaco Canyon.  1,000 years ago, Native Americans used to gather from all around the West to share their knowledge in order to improve their lives. Chaco Canyon is so special, the United Nations declared it a World Heritage Site.

Nonetheless, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke wanted to tear into the Greater Chaco landscape so special interests could make some money.  Fortunately, he was stopped – at least temporarily – by a coalition of Native American leaders, concerned citizens, WildEarth Guardians and others who still understand that there are some things more important than money.

For centuries, people have taken things from Native Americans – their dignity, their land, and the resources that lie beneath it.  But there’s something that hasn’t been stolen, and I think we should – that’s the idea that the land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the land.  To them, the land is sacred.  The word sacred is becoming increasingly uncommon in our modern, secular world.  Probably, because it means religious and religion is a tricky subject.  What if we think of sacred as meaning “too valuable to be destroyed?”  Aren’t some things too valuable to be destroyed?

Who would ever destroy something sacred?  A bully.   Bullies don’t win an argument with facts, they win an argument with force.  If the facts are against them, they start calling people names.  Take Zinke.  Even though he’s given away nearly 5.1 million acres of public land to the oil & gas industry—more than any other Interior Secretary in history in a similar time frame—he’s frustrated that he can’t give away our public land more readily.  He’s frustrated because some people at the Interior department actually care about the Interior.  So like any frustrated bully, he started calling them names.   He said that one third of his employees aren’t patriotic.  Miriam Webster defines patriotism as “love or devotion for one’s country.”  How can the desire to defend our land be anything other than the highest expression of love and devotion?

When I was younger I had a simpler idea of patriotism.  It was standing on top of Pike’s Peak , looking out at the Rockies and the prairies – and understanding for the very first time the words purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain.  It was being 10 years old, the year of the Bicentennial, listening to the Beach Boys, watching fireworks explode over the Washington Monument.

As I’ve grown older, the monuments where I celebrate America have changed.  Now, when I think of monuments, I think of the Giant Sequoias, Grand Staircase and Great Sand dunes.  My definition of patriotism has also changed.  This is my definition now.  A patriot cares deeply about the well-being of all Americans, left right, gay straight, rich poor, black or white.  A patriot cares deeply about equality.  A patriot cares more about freedom of speech than she does about the flag.  A patriot has the courage to see our imperfections and the optimism to embrace our possibilities.

But being a patriot is not enough, we must also be moral and we know who we truly are, as moral individuals, by the way we respond to vulnerability.  It’s easy to serve the powerful because they usually reward our service.  Serving the vulnerable offers less tangible rewards.  How do we respond to the them?  Do we exploit them?  Do we ridicule them?  Do we ignore those who cannot speak for themselves, whose voices go unheard?  Or do we rush to give them aid and comfort.   The land is silent – it cannot speak for itself.  Even an animal can cry out in pain, but the land is mute as bulldozers and drills rip it apart.

Maybe I sound melodramatic, talking about the vulnerability of the land.  Perhaps that’s true.  But I didn’t come to activism through my brain, I came to it through my heart.  I’ve cared about this stuff since I was a kid.  I actually remember the moment I started caring.

One day, when I was very young, I was playing in Rock Creek Park and I came across this really big rock.  Like any curious kid, I decided I had to turn it over.  There in the moist, dark soil lay a three-inch long salamander.  As I watched the salamander, it started to squirm.  It was brightly colored and had these little dots.  I was pretty excited – but I also felt something else.  I was afraid.  I was afraid I hurt the little guy, just by turning over the rock.  In that moment, I sensed the salamanders’ vulnerability – both to myself and to the larger world.  I felt this powerful urge to protect it.  I’ve dedicated 20 years of my life to WildEarth Guardians because of that urge to protect the vulnerable.

Anyway, I didn’t come here to tell you about my childhood, I came here to share a new vision for protecting our public lands.  The truth is, I lied.  I don’t have a new vision, – I have an old one.  One that goes back thousands of years, to the Garden of Eden.  The idea that this planet is a garden and we’re here to nurture it.  To water – not drill.  To fertilize, not frack.  To plant, not pollute.

For me, that vision should be enough –the idea that protecting the land is our job.  Sadly, that’s not the case.  In order to protect the land, we need to win the narrative.  Right now, the narrative goes something like this… climate change versus economic growth, fossil fuels versus renewal energy, public land versus private interest.   The problem with these narratives is they lack moral clarity.

Perhaps my greatest hero is Martin Luther King.  He did more than anyone to advance the cause of civil rights. I’ve been reading a lot of his speeches recently, and I found something interesting.  Not only does he rarely mention the word civil rights, he rarely talks about policy or statistics.  Instead, he frames a moral an argument so clearly, so simply – that it cannot be denied.  The policy flows from there.

If I did have a new vision, it would be this – let’s change the narrative.

For too long, people who oppose conservation have cornered the market on patriotism.  They do it by defining patriotism in a way that excludes many of us from embracing the term.  They claim a “patriot” is someone who never questions war, who refuses to admit that our country has ever done anything wrong, who wears a flag pin on their lapel, and stands for the national anthem.   They try to convince us that if you’re patriotic, you can’t care about social justice or the environment.  You can’t defend a mountain lion’s right to live or fight alongside Native Americans to protect their heritage.

I have a better narrative…

The land is sacred and a patriot defends the land.  Not just from foreign invaders but from those who would sell it to the highest bidder.  Now, more than ever, we need more patriots.  Thank you very much.

John Horning

About the Author

John Horning | Executive Director, WildEarth Guardians

Read more from