This Land Is Your Land

By Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

on June 11, 2017

Opening Hymn –

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

 — This Land is Your Land, by Woody Guthrie

When Woody Guthrie penned the lyrics to This Land is Your Land in 1940, there was another verse in the song that he wrote as a protest that was unreleased. It goes like this:

There was a big high wall there/that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted./It said “Private Property.”
But on the backside/it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie, who was a lifelong social activist, was fully aware that private land ownership is, of course, for those who can afford it . . . a reminder that, while this land was made for you and me, it isn’t always available to you and me.

Glenn’s reflection made me think of yet another exception to Guthrie’s aspirational song: the Coosa River, which Glenn mentioned as natural resource in need of our eco-justice attention. 

Stretching 280 miles from Rome, Georgia to Montgomery, Alabama, the Coosa River has been at the center of a battle for control for hundreds of years. The Coosa’s watershed area was once the ancestral homeland of Native Americans. When the French and British arrived to the New World, their governments recognized that the Coosa was an important southern waterway and, consequently, competed for control of it.

Years later following the Revolutionary War, General Andrew Jackson drove the Cherokee, the Creeks and other Native American nations out of the river basin and into Oklahoma, convinced – among other things – that white settlers had the right to stake their land claims without interference.

Today, the Coosa River has been the subject of control of a different sort – one that impacts not just human lives, but the wider circle of flora and fauna. A century ago, when Southern Company subsidiary Alabama Power began impounding tens of thousands of river basin acres to build dams for hydropower, the Coosa slowly became transformed. What was once a fast-moving river in Alabama is now a series of six private recreational lakes, with some public access.

What’s more, as a result of the dam construction to the river and its tributaries, 36 species were sent into extinction, including unique aquatic snail and mussel species which can be found nowhere else in the world. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, these losses represent the greatest extinction event in modern North American history.

And so, it seems that the Coosa River is a reminder that, while Woody Guthrie’s observation about our nation’s abundant natural beauty is entirely true, the idea that our abundant natural resources were made for all of us to enjoy isn’t entirely accurate.

Human activity, human need, and human greed frequently encroach, disrupt and spoil our land and – in the case of the Coosa River – its water and surrounding life. By design or by accident, we have taken away the ability for all the Yous and Mes – that is, all living things – to freely participate in what Guthrie suggests should rightfully be ours.

Long before Guthrie, there was Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir and other conservationists who believed that we needed to set aside some of our most amazing places in this country. They believed that we needed to protect their beauty and wildlife and ensure that they would be available for many generations of Yous and Mes. Their passion led to what has become our U.S. National Park System.

Like me, I imagine that many of you may consider our national parks to be among our country’s crown jewels. Places like Yellowstone. Yosemite. Glacier. The Badlands. Denali. Grand Canyon. Joshua Tree. The Everglades. Great Smoky Mountains. These names alone evoke for me a sense of awe and wonder and reverence.

And, the establishment of the national park system that makes their existence possible is perhaps one of the most profound and fortuitous decisions our U.S. Congress has ever made.

Parks! As Glenn asked, what’s not to like about a park? They offer beauty. Serenity. Recreation. And, while they might also offer the greatest number of people access to the greatness of Mother Nature, their vitality is not guaranteed. A number of parks are being threatened by our human-centered lives and the demand for natural resources that it produces.

And so, with school out and warm weather upon us, I want to explore with you this morning the dilemma we face as Park Lovers and Park Users. I would like to take a look at what we can do to enjoy our parks this summer while being mindful that it is our human activity – however well intentioned – that often does the most harm to the land we love.

My hope is that our interactions with the great outdoors will inspire us even more to join with Glenn and others to take action to care for it.  

First, can we just rest for a minute in the thought of these beautiful places, which have been set aside for their protection and our enjoyment? In times of discouragement, fear and heartache – and I believe more and more of us are experiencing these feelings right now in some way or another – our national parks can quite possibly come to our spiritual aid.

They are, in many respects, a connection to our continent’s genesis and a glimpse into her soul. They are the only Garden of Eden we may ever see or experience.

About parks and their significance, a former National Park Service Director Newton B. Drury wrote decades ago:

The American way of life consists of something that goes greatly beyond the mere obtaining of the necessities of existence. If it means anything, it means that America presents to its citizens an opportunity to grow mentally and spiritually, as well as physically.

The National Park System and the work of the National Park Service constitute one of the Federal Government’s important contributions to that opportunity.

In other words, our park experiences can enrich us in ways not possible in our day-to-day existence. They can transform our bodies, our character and our spirit. 

As a child, my parents didn’t have the money to take us on expensive family vacations, so parks – local, state and national – were our respites and sources of adventure. Shenandoah National Park was the closest to us and the one we visited each fall on our annual leaf trip.

Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, a 2,000-acre natural urban park and part of the National Capital Parks system, was high on our list of favorites. I remember how I loved riding with my family along Rock Creek Parkway, which was covered by a lush, leafy canopy. My father’s Ford Fairlane had no air conditioning, so on hot summer afternoons, my sister and I would roll down the windows to let the tree-cooled air blow through the car and whip our hair.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to explore national parks further away from home. Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado was my first. I was alone on a business trip and decided to arrive in Denver a few days early to check it out. I rented a car and drove through the park, taking in the majestic views and crisp mountain air. It was a liberating experience.  

My first spouse, who was an avid hiker and camper, completed my indoctrination to national parks. During our marriage, we hiked in the Chattahoochee, Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in North Georgia and North Carolina. We camped outside of Taos Pueblo and in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico . . . and at Point Reyes and Pfeiffer Big Sur in Northern California . . . and on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.

Gail and I have continued this park adventure – minus the camping. We’ve been to the Grand Canyon, Mt. Hood, Yosemite, Redwood, and Glacier in the U.S., as well as Banff and Waterton Lakes in Alberta, Canada. Just recalling these wonderful places makes me so eager to visit the next one!

While these preserved parks and forests and seashores are indeed beautiful, it’s probably no surprise to many of you that they aren’t as protected as we might imagine. A National Geographic article named the top ten issues threatening our national parks.

As you might imagine, some threats are environmental, such as wildlife management, invasive species, adjacent development, air pollution, water issues, and – of course – climate change. Some are institutional, such as a lack of human and financial resources that make it challenging for the parks to adequately tell their unique stories or fix their crumbling historic buildings and infrastructure.

However, among the top ten threats, one danger is simply the park visitors themselves. It’s the Yous and Mes who come in droves to the parks each season and who want to experience all they have to offer.

National Geographic had this to say:

Popular parks like Yosemite face overcrowding issues that would have amazed John Muir. Today’s visitors also use parks in new ways. Snowmobilers prowl Yellowstone and pilots fly visitors over the Grand Canyon. Mountain bikers, motorboaters and many others all hope to enjoy their favorite pastimes in their favorite parks. Does allowing such activities enhance the park experience or detract from it?

National Geographic notes that the National Park Service has had to carefully weigh the interests of Nature against the interests of tourism. Quoting the National Park Service Chief of Public Affairs, the article says the top priority is clear.

“When we have to make a choice between recreation and preservation,” [the Public Affairs chief observes], “we will always choose preservation and our decision will be based on our mandate, policies, and good science.”

So, what about us Park Lovers and Park Users . . . the Yous and Mes? How can we help, not harm our national parks as we enjoy them? How might good science, as well as our Unitarian Universalist principles – which are our spiritual mandate –guide our activities?

Yellowstone, the first national park in the U.S., offers a few familiar, yet important suggestions. They include:

  1. Calculate and track your carbon footprint.
  2. Reduce, reuse and recycle the resources you use.
  3. Minimize your solo driving and use pollution-free transportation alternatives like walking and biking.
  4. Eat locally. Most of the food we eat travels 1,500 miles to our plate. Eating locally reduces our use of fossil fuels.
  5. Shorten your shower by one minute and save 150 gallons of water a month. Turn off the water when you shave and save 300 gallons a month.
  6. Set your thermostat as low as you can go in the winter and as high as you can tolerate in the summer.
  7. Replace your incandescent lights with compact florescent lamps and LEDs. If every household in America replaced just one incandescent with a CFL, it would be the equivalent to removing the greenhouse gas emission from 800,000 automobiles.
  8. Visit the parks. The more we know them, the more we will be inspired to protect them.

And, finally,

  1. Donate to or volunteer at a non-profit working on climate change or national park protection.

To Yellowstone’s list, I would add that we consider the invitation that Glenn is offering to examine non-legal approaches to companies like Georgia Power to address environmental concerns.

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As we go from here, I am wishing you a summer that connects you more deeply to your body and spirit. May a visit to a park play a role in that.

And, may we do our part to ensure that the Garden of Eden here on Earth that can be found in our parks is available to those who follow us and – like us – want this land to be for you and me for all time.

May it be so. Amen.