Our Landscape, Our Future

By Tim Palmer

Island. 338 pp. $24.95

There's a Cherokee word Tim Palmer says we all must learn if we are to reclaim America's landscape from centuries of abuse. Eloheh means land, but it also means history, culture and religion. As a Cherokee spokesman explains, "We cannot separate our place on earth from our lives on the earth nor from our vision nor our meaning as a people." In contrast, European settlers brought with them a concept of land as only a means to wealth, calling it real estate. Consequently, argues Palmer, "many people have regarded the land foremost as a machine for producing money, either harvesting what the land could yield or turning the acreage into something else -- something it wasn't." Such a mechanistic world view, unrestrained by principles of stewardship for resources and regard for other life, has led to today's environmental problems.

Wonderfully organized as a travelogue tour across the country, Palmer's touching book provides good introductory lessons on how each of America's ecosystems functions when in good health. Eastern woodlands left intact can absorb so much water through their tree roots and transpiration of water into the air that flood levels are reduced by 75 percent. In Alaska, studies of salmon streams that are still surrounded by forests show they have five to 50 times more salmon than do streams whose banks have been deforested.

At the same time Palmer shows just how rare such healthy ecosystems have become. Air pollution from urban Southern California is poisoning 55 percent of the trees in southern Sierra Nevada national forests. Suburban sprawl is taking one million acres of farmland and open space per year. From 1990-94 chemical plants, pulp mills and other manufacturers released one billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the nation's waterways, while another 450 million pounds went untreated through sewer systems before being dumped into rivers and oceans.

Palmer blames congressional kowtowing to business lobbyists for allowing such degradation. Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority whip, introduced legislation in 1996 virtually requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue a permit for draining wetlands in his district so that a golf course could be built. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) led the fight to block reforms of the 1872 Mining Law, which has permitted mining companies to buy 3.2 million acres of public lands for $2.50 an acre and get the minerals for free. In 1990 Sen. Craig received $51,400 from political action committees against reforming the mining law. Legislation to require farms to treat animal wastes -- farm animals generate about 150 times as much sewage as humans do each year -- repeatedly have been blocked by farm and agribusiness lobbyists.

These defeats mostly have been supported by conservative politicians. But Palmer detects an inner contradiction there. While conservatives purport to value tradition, support the status quo and oppose new environmental and land-use regulations as unnecessary changes, simply letting development and pollution proceed without safeguards has meant radical change for the worse. In Flathead County, Mon., home of Glacier National Park, a county effort to control development was subverted by self-styled individualists for whom planning was "pure socialism." But as Palmer notes, the old Flathead County was not preserved when the plan was abandoned. "To the contrary, under the rhetoric of individual freedom, supporters of uncontrolled growth continue to convert parts of Montana into California-style suburbs."

And that's no future for Montana or the rest of the country. For each ecosystem, Palmer indicates proposed policies or legislation that would substantially reduce pollution and other abuses. More broadly, he points to the Land and Conservation Fund. Financed by royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling, the fund is expected to grow from $4.7 billion in 1997 to $10 billion a year by 2002. Congress could require itself to spend all this money on land and not follow its historical practice of substantially diverting the funds to other uses. Most of all, Palmer wants us to follow the Cherokees and create a sense of national identity and direction for the 21st century based on caring for the land. Boldly eschewing the cynicism of our era, he offers hope of a land restored -- and a republic regained: "When we take care of the land, we weave all these forces into a greater fabric of family, community, and government -- a true citizenship giving people what they need."

James William Gibson is a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach.