The fight to stop the corporate plundering of national monuments and other wild places is ramping up. It’s being fueled, in part, by some “old broads who hike” — and who are now suing the president.
I was looking into the recent slashing of 2 million acres of national-monument land when I bumped into a document that made me do a double take. It now has given me at least a little hope for the environment’s future.
“Great Old Broads for Wilderness v. Donald J. Trump,” it said.
Old broads are suing Donald Trump?
“You bet we are,” says Valerie La Breche, 91, of Seattle, who confirmed when I called that she was indeed a great old broad. “He’s done more damage on the environment than anything else. So it was time to fight.”
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It turns out the Great Old Broads for Wilderness is a tiny, 28-year-old hiking group that got its start as an act of defiance. In the late 1980s, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was arguing that remote wild areas needed roads built through them. Because otherwise, he said, how would the elderly access them?
“Some of the first old broads were really put off by this,” recalls Shelley Silbert, the group’s executive director. “They said: ‘We’ll show you we don’t need roads.’ We adopted the word ‘old’ into our name, just to show that they couldn’t speak for the elderly about the wilderness.”
A small group of women began hikes into the wilderness, as well as trail-work parties and advocacy to protect the land. Today the group has 8,000 members, mostly in the West. It was described recently by High Country News as “turning graying retirees into GPS-wielding, public-comment-making dynamos.”
Add “lawsuit-filing.” This month the Great Old Broads joined other environmental groups in filing two suits against Trump’s move to cut by two-thirds the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. The administration also plans to hack away at Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, to open it up for logging.
The suits argue the president can create monuments but can’t eliminate existing ones (that would be up to Congress). What Trump did is replace the two monuments with five new ones, all scattered and totaling a fraction of the size. The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears monument, for example, was shrunk into two new monuments totaling just 202,000 acres. So more than 1 million acres lost federal protection.
The administration, echoing Sen. Hatch’s old canard about roads, said it wasn’t for mining or drilling, but so the public could get in there and use them.
“Public lands are for public use, and not for special interests,” Ryan Zinke, secretary of the interior, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
A few days later, though, The Washington Post reported that a mining company had lobbied to open the area for uranium and vanadium mining. The administration’s redrawing of the boundaries hewed suspiciously closely to the company’s request.
The old broads bristle at the notion that they are the special interest. While the mining company is the public trust.
“Has Trump ever hiked, or camped?” asked Annie Cubberly, of Olympia, the leader of the group’s Washington state chapter. “To him it seems like the land is just something to be exploited, extracted, used for profit.”
Every old broad I spoke with noted that Trump undermined the monuments without bothering to visit them.
“I can get out into the wilderness, but he can’t?” wondered La Breche.
On the other hand, La Breche, who turns 92 in February, bikes nine miles a day near her home in Green Lake. She’s hiked the Olympics and The Wonderland Trail as recently as the past few years, and she spent her 90th birthday skiing in the French Alps. So it’s not just Trump who can’t keep up with her.
The group has a budget of only about $500,000. There’s no lawyer on staff, so the group is helping pay for two from Earthjustice.
“We’re old broads who hike,” Silbert said. “It wasn’t our plan to be getting involved in expensive litigation against the government. But they seem hellbent on attacking wild places, so we thought: What choice do we have but to fight back?”
Selling out the environment to corporate interests is the one area where Trump is getting a lot done. It goes way beyond rolling back monuments, to boosting oil drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge to a bill moving through Congress that would go back to the old days of big clear-cuts in the national forests.
So why am I hopeful, as I said at the beginning of this column? Because at least the fight for the wild is now on. Take it from the old broads: Even those who are supposed to be retired aren’t retiring from it.