Public lands are the literal grounds of our American identity. Our national parks and forests, dazzling wildlife refuges, and thousands of scenic trails embody America both at home and abroad. While their creation is often rooted in the unjust removal of Native Americans who called them home for millennia, public lands today represent refuge from the routines of daily life and celebrate what collaborative management can achieve. Now, in the face of climate change, the role of public lands has again evolved — this time from simply a refuge to the more complicated role of both a bulwark against climate change and a potential victim to climate change in need of defense.
Faith and spirituality have sustained, enhanced, and defined America’s public lands for centuries. Communities of faith must consider the central role of public lands stewardship in our abilities to love and care for our families, our neighbors, and God’s creation. Caring for public lands means caring for healthy communities, stable livelihoods and economies, resilient food systems, and bountiful landscapes that show God’s grace to each successive generation. Public lands also unite us with those of all political and religious walks, as clean water, breathable air, and fruitful soil are universal values that we all further by protecting them.
Faith and spirituality have sustained, enhanced, and defined America’s public lands for centuries.
As stated above, Native Americans are the original and rightful owners of this country, and they have been the best and longest stewards of all its natural features. Native American religions and cultures have understood and treasured for millennia the sacred interconnectedness between humans and the ecosystems that surround us. And Native American sacred sites have also been the target of political and corporate exploitation, as was most recently illustrated by the previous administration’s attempts to open up the Bears Ears Monument to mining. Working to protect Bears Ears for the benefit of all future generations, the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe founded the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and succeeded in staving off threatened devastation to one of our nation’s most integral landscapes.
Advocacy to protect Bears Ears was a success both in outcome and in process -- the interfaith effort brought Christian, Jewish, and Native American Tribes together to reject both the desecration of a national treasure and the racism of violating Native American rights and values. This support extended beyond Bears Ears to all national monuments under threat, including Cascade-Siskiyou, Gold Butte, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Katahdin Woods and Waters, Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, Pacific Remote Islands, Rio Grande Del Norte, and Rose Atoll National Monuments.
The sacredness of nature is a core tenet of Judeo-Christian culture, as well - not just one adopted in the interest of allyship. As the Book of Psalms declares, “[T]the trees of the forest will sing for joy," and "[i]n God’s hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to God.” The famous Christian thinker and preacher Cotton Mather declared in 1721, “The Lord by Wisdom has founded the Earth[,]” and the Passionist priest, naturalist, and historian Thomas Berry taught over two centuries later that, “Reverence will be total or it will not be at all.” We either accept that this Earth is divine creation and live accordingly, or we reject the truth of God’s goodness and imprint on all that surrounds us. More recently, in just the past twenty years, almost all major Christian denominations have called for the restoration and protection of America’s lands to nourish ecosystems, economies, and communities. People of faith have been powerful protectors of our greatest public treasures, from the red rock wilderness and Grand Canyon to the Everglades and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
We either accept that this Earth is divine creation and live accordingly, or we reject the truth of God’s goodness and imprint on all that surrounds us.
Climate change demands swift and strategic action to restore and protect our most valuable ecosystems and ensure equitable access to places of refuge. Scientists are clear that the current climate crisis threatens not just humans, but all living beings. The diversity of God’s creation is under siege due to changes on all fronts, from temperatures to sea level, from extreme weather to wildfires. Public lands can both mitigate the effects of climate change and facilitate adaptation to the effects that cannot be avoided.
A comprehensive climate plan for public lands is the only way to achieve the outcomes we need on the timescale by which we need them. The Build Back Better plan by the Biden-Harris Administration has several components that are critical to a successful and just path forward that protects both the future and the heritage of all Americans. Running through each of these core components are the values of public engagement, fair apportionment of costs and benefits, and compassionate economies that secure both health and profit for impacted communities.
A comprehensive climate plan for public lands is the only way to achieve the outcomes we need on the timescale by which we need them.
The Civilian Climate Corps would create jobs by employing Americans to restore public lands and waters, enhance community resilience, improve access to recreation, address the changing climate, and more. This simple concept underscores the opportunities that come with swift and comprehensive action on climate change — we can make sure that communities are themselves part of the solution, rather than waiting around for outside assistance.
A few simple tweaks to how we regulate fossil fuels would likewise yield massive benefits to the American public and public lands by making our economy more efficient and sustainable. Right now, the American taxpayer is footing the bill for cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells - over 60,000 of which have already been recorded across the country. These wells are major environmental hazards that contaminate groundwater and emit the powerful greenhouse gas methane, and funding for clean-up has fallen far short. Congress can fix this by employing Americans to close existing wells and requiring private companies to finance well clean-up moving forward - again benefitting communities and public lands by centering justice.
Finally, Congress must guarantee the public a seat at the table when government decisions are made and public funds spent. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is the law that exists for just such a purpose, and it requires robust funding to actually work. Meaningful public participation means access to full information about a proposed project and its potential impacts and timely opportunities to comment on the options presented. Unless Congress fully funds NEPA, it is an empty promise that checks the box of public engagement without allowing us to actually steward our public lands.
The coming weeks are crucial to the success of this ambitious and essential agenda. Congress will decide whether to turn the latter concepts into law, and if so, at what level to fund them. Far from being weedy decisions by bureaucrats that don’t affect the average American, Congress’s action on the multi-trillion dollar proposal before it will largely determine how much human suffering we can prevent this century. The Biden-Harris Administration has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that climate is a fundamental factor in all government decisions made concerning public lands, and that public lands are likewise a fundamental tool in the government’s approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change.
At our best, we as people of faith stand with our spiritual human family from all religions, cultures, and traditions to steward what we all know is truly sacred. When we recognize our public lands as worthy of reverence and our responsibility for stewarding them as shared, we are answering God’s call. You can continue this sacred tradition by telling Congress that public lands are an invaluable gift that we must preserve on moral grounds, and whose survival is now inextricably linked to our own.
About this Blog
This blog shares the activities of Creation Justice Ministries. We educate and equip Christians to protect, restore, and rightly share God's creation.