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Public Lands, a Safeguard Against Authoritarians, Are More Important Than Ever

They don’t just provide food, recreation, clean water, and jobs, but privacy too. With Trump in power, they’ll help us protect our fundamental freedoms.

By Jimmy Tobias


Fireworks fill the night sky above Oceti Sakowin Camp as activists celebrate after learning an easement had been denied for the Dakota Access Pipeline near the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 4th, 2016, outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Edward Abbey’s advice is apt.

“The wilderness should be preserved for political reason,” he wrote in his elegiac 1968 memoir, Desert Solitaire. “We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism, but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression.”

In speech after speech and tweet after tweet, President-elect Donald Trump has promised us an authoritarian sort of government — a government staffed by white supremacist sympathizers, Christian extremists, Big Oil insiders, and committed militarists that will seek to intimidate the press, threaten political opponents, deport millions, impose “law and order,” build border walls, spy on civilians, rollback environmental protections, and use torture and other illegal tactics in conflicts abroad.

We should expect that our new president will attempt to keep his word. In a crucial post-election essay, the writer Masha Gessen, who has spent much of her life living under Eastern European autocracies, had this advice for wary Americans:

Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for rationalization. Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out.

Already the president-elect’s appointments — Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Betsy DeVos — indicate that he means to remake our government in his own ugly image. And as Trump continues to put his agenda into action, there are many potent tools at his disposal. The most frightening of these is the system of mass surveillance he’ll soon inherit.

We are a country with 17 major intelligence agencies, from the Defense Intelligence Agency to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Central Intelligence Agency. A 2010 report estimated that 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies do counterterrorism and intelligence work at more than 10,000 locations across the country. Homeland security drones watch our borders, both north and south. Tens of millions of security cameras monitor our streets, shooting billions of hours of footage a year. Finally, of course, there are the social media firms, phone companies, and Internet service providers that readily offer metadata and other digital information to a smorgasbord of spy agencies and advertisers.

And the outline above doesn’t include the many other unaccountable executive powers that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama claimed for themselves in an effort to pursue their “global war on terror.”

People are rightly afraid that a man like Trump will be at the helm of this national security state, as some have called it. That’s why encrypted messenger apps like Signal have had a huge surge in their user base since his election. That’s why you’re seeing a flood of “surveillance self-defense” articles. When it comes to our sprawling surveillance infrastructure, many feel that there’s no place to hide.

Indeed, No Place to Hide is the name of the book that the journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations. The title comes from commentary by Senator Frank Church, the great Democrat of Idaho, who, in the 1970s, conducted a thorough investigation into the power and practices of the National Security Agency, CIA, and FBI. The senator came away from that inquiry horrified, and his words are a warning for today:

The National Security Agency’s capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.

If a dictator ever took power, Church added, the NSA “could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”

These days, of course, the situation is much worse. The NSA’s capabilities are far more advanced, and it is joined in its efforts by 16 other agencies. Nevertheless, as I’ve argued before, there is a place — or, rather, places — to hide in the United States today. There are still places where one can find privacy and autonomy away from snooping eyes and listening ears. These places are our public lands. Here’s the upshot:

There are more than 600 million acres of federal public land across the country. You and your fellow Americans own these lands. They’re the national forests, parks, grasslands, wildlife refuges, and more that so many citizens love and depend on. Of these, more than 190 million acres are federally designated wilderness, protected by law, where permanent structures and mechanized equipment are prohibited. You can’t drive cars or build cell towers or use motorboats in wilderness. Smartphones and streetlights and surveillance cameras don’t work out there, and the police presence is practically non-existent.

As Trump ascends to the highest office in the nation, the public lands, and wilderness in particular, are more important than ever before. They’re not only a source of clean water, timber, food, and fun, they’re also a refuge from the authoritarian tendencies of concentrated power. They’re a place to develop self-sufficiency skills, like orienteering, hunting, and fishing. They’re a place where you can wander for days without setting eyes on another human being. They are a place to find privacy, and privacy — the realm where “dissent, creativity and personal exploration lie,” as Greenwald has argued — is a crucial right in any free society.

Like city streets and squares and other sorts of democratic space, the public lands are also a place for “corporeal politics,” a place to physically express our First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly — the Standing Rock resistance, with its sprawling camps built atop federally managed treaty land, is a fine example.


Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. (Photo: Ballantine Books)

Open land and liberty have always been bedfellows. Many leading wilderness advocates of the past — people like Edward Abbey and Bob Marshall — were also exuberant civil liberties enthusiasts. Count Senator Frank Church among them too. Not only did he try in various ways during his long career to contain the growing power of the national security state, he was also a tireless wilderness defender. He was the floor manager of the Wilderness Act of 1964. He sponsored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. And he helped protect vast swaths of wild land across the country, including the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho. These two protected parcels, where I had the good fortune to work for three summers, together constitute the largest wilderness area in the continental U.S.

Making common cause is what the Trump era requires of us. It’s a time for civil libertarians and public lands enthusiasts to recognize and revive their old alliance. Together they could resist attempts to sacrifice conservation law and constitutional freedoms on the altar of border security. They could use the Endangered Species Act to both protect fragile borderland species and stall the construction of Trump’s wall. They could work together to keep surveillance towers and law enforcement vehicles out of wilderness areas near the northern and southern borders. They could also band together to stop the sort of undercover surveillance that “Keep It in the Ground” activists endured at a rally in Denver last spring. Opportunities for collaboration are abundant.

The ultimate hope is that we can protect what Terry Tempest Williams, another courageous civil libertarian and wilderness activist, has called the “open space of democracy.”

In the open space of democracy there is room for dissent and difference, she writes. “The open space of democracy is a landscape that encourages diversity and discourages conformity.”

The open space of democracy is our public lands. We’ll need them more than ever in the years ahead.