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AS I SEE IT / JOSH FIRST

Poster child for squandering our resources

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sept. 11, 2001, is a day I will never for get, not only because of the events themselves, but because of what I did as a result, and how I now see the world around me.

At that time I was the Pennsylvania director for a national non-profit land conservation group, and on that morning I had just begun to give testimony to the state House Environmental Resources Committee on the importance of conserving Pennsylvania's scenic and historic landscapes.

Just a few minutes into my testimony, the committee chairman, Rep. Art Hershey, banged his gavel, looked at me with a most serious face and apologized for interrupting me. Was my testimony really that bad, I thought?

Rep. Hershey announced that during the preparation for our hearing that morning America had been dramatically attacked, and that the Capitol was to be evacuated.

Back at the office minutes later, we gathered around our computer screens and watched the now-famous images, some of us raging out loud, others sitting in shock.

After viewing again and again the scenes of Flight 93's smoldering rubble in a Shanksville field, and hearing its unfolding story over the following two weeks, I found myself in Shanksville with staff from the National Park Service and Somerset County.

Over the following 24 months I worked with the families, a mixed group of volunteers and professionals, locals and interested people, and eventually the Flight 93 Task Force was formed. My role was to develop a site protection plan for creating the Flight 93 memorial and to meet with all of the landowners adjoining the crash site to begin arrangements to purchase their lands.

While much of that work remains, I did negotiate the purchase of the 800-acre PBS Coals parcel that now forms the core area of the planned memorial. It was one of the highlights of my career in environmental protection and land conservation.

The Flight 93 memorial is all about American heroism, pride, sacrifice, and our national identity; it is a very worthy symbol indeed that many citizens and foreigners have come to visit since just days after the crash. It is very nearly a shrine.

NOW, ALMOST EXACTLY four years later the nation has endured yet another crushing blow, this time from Mother Nature in the city of New Orleans. And to many of us observers, the city has been turned into an unwilling and unwanted symbol of America's occasional environmental deafness. For far too long our beautiful, powerful, wealthy nation has embarked on expensive, foolhardy and poorly planned land development that has destroyed important natural resources and scarred forever our nation's best landscapes.

New Orleans is a prime example, perhaps the best example. Built and allowed to grow on a stormy coast with no bedrock and far below sea level, the physical city is symbolic of America's worst habits. And the messy aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans has been as corrosive to our national character and identity as the hurricane was destructive to the homes, buildings and people in its way.

America's love affair with technological fixes like dikes, pumps, levees, engineers in hard hats, big machines, long roads to nowhere, and artificially cheap fuel and energy to keep Mother Nature at bay or out of our way, at any cost, is a symbol of our nation's near-juvenile mentality when it comes to asking and answering the tough questions about who we are and how we live.

RELYING ON unnecessarily large gas-guzzling automobiles to support a way of life that often undermines the feeling of community and the good values that tight communities produce, America's built environment almost always places an emphasis on living expensive and lavish lifestyles, separate from other people, and is based on consuming huge amounts of non-renewable energy for the most trivial undertakings. We take too many unreasonable risks.

In short, America's frontier identity has worked for us in the distant past and is now working against us. We are unthinkingly squandering our best natural resources. New Orleans is today's poster child.

Given the immense human suffering we have already experienced, and the astronomical cost to the nation to rebuild the city, perhaps New Orleans should be permanently evacuated, bulldozed, naturally flooded by the waters around it, and left as a national memorial to human folly.

JOSH FIRST is president and CEO of Appalachian Land and Conservation Services Co. of Harrisburg.

Copyright 2005 The Patriot-News. Used with permission



   

 
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