Mr. Cook Goes to Washington

I believe that natural places have the power to heal our dis-ease with life and to restore our perspective on what really matters.  Places are why I started this blog.  Recently I found myself in a strange, disorienting place: Washington DC.  And rather than walking a pine-needle path, I was wearing out my shoes on the hard floors of the Philip Hart Senate Office Building and other government buildings. Our Capitol no longer stands in much regard, as many of us are frustrated with the scandals, partisan bickering, and inaction that seems to define the American democracy in the early 21st century.  Is there a cure?  Perhaps place, and a common identification with nature, offers a beneficial treatment to our dysfunction.

My family’s 1971 visit to Congressman Charles Chamberlain

This trip to Washington was not my first trip.  When I was a boy, my family took me on the obligatory tour and I still carry with me a youthful, and perhaps naive, view of the seat of our government. Call me romantic, but I am moved by the statues and memorial to our founding fathers, the grand buildings of white marble, and the flags of every state on frequent display.  Like being in nature, I feel ennobled amongst ceremonial architecture and am often awed by the history around me.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was the cause that took me back to the Capitol, and I was there on behalf of The Nature Conservancy to seek re-authorization of this legislation that has done so much to preserve and protect places across our country, all without costing taxpayers anything.  The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) recycles the proceeds of oil and gas leases on federal offshore lands to fund the purchase of land for public use.  Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently called it a “brilliant piece of legislation” for the work it has done saving natural places.  Sadly, the legal authority for this 50 year-old law recently lapsed, victim to dysfunction in Congress.

In Michigan, LWCF has provided the majority of funding for our two National Lakeshores, Sleeping Bear and Pictured Rocks, but the funds go well beyond national parks.  The $322 million in LWCF funds directed to the Great Lake State have gone to places as diverse as Huron National Forest, the Brighton State Recreation Area, Lake Lansing Park, River Raisin National Battlefield, and the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.

The bi-partisan, long-standing support for the LWCF may be because these funds go to develop trails, provide hunting and fishing opportunities, save historical sites, aid the timber industry, provide neighborhood recreation, and preserve some of our most beautiful and ecologically important natural areas.  These are distinct and valued natural places, and many people–of all backgrounds and all political parties–cherish these places.  
The Power of Place should not be underestimated, and I saw it on display in the troubled halls of Congress. Our Senator, Gary Peters, has a room dedicated to Isle Royale, Michigan’s oldest National Park, and we conversed over maps and photos. Visitors to Congressman Dan Benishek’s office are

greeted by posters of classic “big letter” postcards from the places in his northern Michigan District.  Congressman Dan Kildee spoke passionately about the City of Flint and the necessity of protecting the water upon which all depend.  Every office has some photo of a beautiful place in Michigan. And staffers from all 11 offices (four Democratic, and seven Republican) we visited recounted some affection for their hometown park, favorite hiking place, or family vacation home.  

The love for place transcends party, and it seemed to me that many of those who work in the Capitol were eager to talk about the out-of-doors rather than the election of the next Speaker of the House.  I know that there are significant policy questions about  the role of the federal government, the regulatory machinery operated by bureaucracies to protect our environment, and the cost of all of this, but I was pleasantly surprised to find so much support for protecting places using LWCF.  
Now we just need to help all our members of Congress escape the rules debates, the personality contests, the media moments, and the other boxes that have entrapped them.  Be sure to contact your legislator and ask them to permanently renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund. If we can accomplish this, perhaps our elected representatives can discover anew the affection for place on display in their offices.  Perhaps they will discover that conservation is not a partisan issue.  Perhaps they will discover the benefits of working together.  

Staff from The Nature Conservancy join me in meeting with my Congressman, John Moolenaar, who has signed a letter of support for passage of the Land and Water Conservation Fund
Nature in our Nation’s Capitol.  Washington is not such a bad place, despite what you read in the paper.  The people there love nature. And one morning some of use even discovered some nature close by.  Staff and trustees from The Nature Conservancy headed out early from out hotel near the National Mall with binoculars in hand, and as the sun rose we saw mockingbirds and blue-jays in the mature and towering trees around the Capitol, hundreds of chimney swifts agitating the sky overhead, in the reflecting pools there was a ruddy duck along with mallards and ring-billed gulls, and in the bushes outside the National Arboretum, we had a most uncommon sighting of a common yellow-throat.  In all, we identified 24 species of birds, proving that nature can thrive everywhere, even in Congress.

Use your outside voice; go here to have The Nature Conservancy help you take action

One thought on “Mr. Cook Goes to Washington

  1. Great blog and report, Tom! Our journey to reauthorize and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) continues, and each success such as your conversation with Rep. Moolenaar, helps us get one step closer. Thank you so much for your great support and for taking the time to talk to elected officials at Advocacy Day – it really matters! Mike Dennis


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