As the two candidates went at it during the debate at Hofstra University two weeks ago, their disagreement over whether President Barack Obama had increased or decreased oil and gas production on federal lands got me thinking: Uh-oh.
This summer, my wife and I made a long-dreamed-of trip to some of our national parks: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. On a wall at Zion, I read this description of the mission of the National Park Service, an agency at the heart of what America does best: "Beginning with Yellowstone, the idea of a national park was an American invention of historic consequences." This got me a bit emotional.
Later in the trip, as we entered Grand Teton, the ranger said to us: "Enjoy your park." That also got to me. The idea that the park belongs to every American is no small thing. It is a glorious American invention, starting with Yellowstone, and expanding to nearly 400 national parks today. The idea of setting aside lands of spectacular beauty for the enjoyment of all a nation's citizens is a profound one, now emulated by countries all over the world.
At Hofstra, Mitt Romney argued that Obama had cut oil and gas production on federal lands, and Obama said he had increased it. But what does that exchange mean for the national parks? They're a small percentage of total federal lands, and Romney isn't specifically talking about them. Still, this conversation had a worrisome ring to it. And Carl Pope, former chairman of the Sierra Club and a major contributor to the Ken Burns documentary series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," said there is reason for concern.
"If you ask Romney, would he drill for oil in the national parks, he would say no," Pope said. But he added: "You don't have to drill inside the parks to ruin the parks."
At Yellowstone, for example, Pope said that tapping geothermal energy from federal lands near Yellowstone could alter the forces that power Old Faithful, the most iconic of the park's many geysers.
At Grand Canyon, we saw the remnants of a Cold War-era uranium mine in the canyon. It is closed, but the clean-up of contamination continues.
Earlier this year, Obama announced a 20-year ban on new uranium mining claims on 1 million acres around Grand Canyon. But there are more than 3,000 existing claims. Romney says he wants to transfer control over mining and drilling on public lands from the federal government to the states. If Arizona gets to make the decision on uranium claims near the Grand Canyon, don't bet that the state will say no. In some states, Pope said, the state constitution actually requires them to lease out lands.
Not far from Bryce, there's a proposal for a strip coal mine on federal land. Do you think Utah would say no, if Congress were to join a President Romney and cede control to the states? And in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, next to Grand Teton, there's vast potential for natural gas drilling.
Struggles over resources in national parks are not new.
"We should remember that the development of our national park system over a period of many years has not been a simple bed of roses," said President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a champion of the parks. "It has been a long and fierce fight against many private interests which were entrenched in political and economic power."
This year, the parks have not been a hotly -- or even warmly -- debated issue in the campaign. But those who love them should at least ponder the question of whether one result of this election might be to clear the way for forces that would damage these lands that impart real meaning to the phrase America the Beautiful.
Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.