A leading Democrat on Republicans and the'land ethic'

As I travel in Massachusetts and the nation, I hear more and more complaints that the Reagan administration is selling America's common heritage of natural resources to a few powerful special interests. The founders of the Republic resisted such concentrations of power. The pioneers, homesteaders, and sodbusters of the last century recognized that America's greatest treasures are a free political system and a remarkable natural inheritance.

It is time to reaffirm their view and weave what has been called the ''land ethic'' into US national policy. That ethic reaffirms the self-evident truth that our natural resources are as much a shared inheritance as the right to vote.

The values that underlie the land ethic have always been part of our history. They have moved Americans to develop a unique treasure of national parks, wilderness areas, and urban parks in our cities. We have sought to preserve natural wonders and to conserve the bounty of our soil, waters, and coasts for our children's children and for generations of Americans to come.

Our success or failure in this continuing challenge is a measure of our democratic vitality. For democracy is strong only when citizens are willing to sacrifice some private gain for the greater good of the whole society. Democracy works best when our eyes are on the future and when we weigh our decisions on a scale that counts more than narrow and transitory advantages of the moment.

But at the center of national power today there prevails a fundamentally undemocratic ethic of selfishness directly opposed to the community spirit of the Land Ethic. Secretary of the Interior James Watt and Environmental Protection Agency Director Ann Gorsuch have put irreplaceable ecological resources on the auction block to be bought by the highest bidder. Their extremist and ideological version of private enterprise leaves very little, if any, room for a public morality of conservation and a priority on sound environmental management.

The President and Secretary Watt are now putting 50 million acres of public lands up for sale. This sale represents the biggest land grab in modern history; acreage as large as the entire state of Iowa will be gaveled over to exploitation. In a depressed market, it is likely the land will go cheap. In a recent sale of mineral rights to a billion tons of Wyoming coal, only 3 of 13 available tracts attracted more than one bidder.

It is a national tragedy that a Republican administration is abandoning the historic commitment of the Republican Party to the land ethic. Theodore Roosevelt would never have surrendered our natural legacy for a budgetary quick fix, let alone one as strikingly modest as this - a few million dollars to apply against hundred-billion-dollar deficits. President Reagan should know - and care - that the damage once done will be irreversible and that the stakes here are as lasting as the earth itself. The President says he wants an America in which everyone can be rich, but at the same time he is stripping away the natural riches which belong to all Americans.

Instead, we should remember and represent the Americans of the future when we make choices which will have ecological consequences that will reach far into the future. In this democracy, we cannot consign such major decisions exclusively to any elite group. Even our best experts cannot be certain that nuclear power is safe enough. Even our best scientists cannot predict the exact degree to which toxic wastes will damage our health and that of our grandchildren. There is no solution yet to the ecological disasters we are causing by the acclerating erosion of Midwestern farmland, the clearcutting of national forests, or the disappearance of three species a day from the face of the earth.

As citizens of this country, we should feel a special concern because America the beautiful is inextricably bound up with America the free. The first of our people determined, in the preamble of the Constitution, ''to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity'' - and the environment was part of that legacy of liberty which they fought and died to defend. In 1792, Thomas Paine wrote:

''As America was the only spot in the political world where the principles of universal reformation could begin, so also was it the best in the natural world. . . . The scene which the country presents to the eye of the spectator has something in it which generates and enlarges great ideas. Nature appears to him in magnitude. The mighty objects he beholds act upon the mind by enlarging it and he partakes of the greatness he contemplates.''

Our heritage requires us to secure for posterity a natural legacy which nurtures liberty of thought and guarantees the clean air, water, and soils necessary for real long-term productivity.

There are Americans who will never have the opportunity to explore the Brooks Range in the Alaskan Rockies. Many others may never see Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or experience the peace of a Cape Cod sunrise with sails full of the western wind. And yet I believe that these natural legacies, which are the heritage of all Americans, expand the American spirit and give breath and life to our continuing experiment in democracy and equality. Before nature, we are all equal, and the wilderness and seashores and public lands we preserve remind us of this truth. ''Such is the irresistible nature of truth,'' Thomas Paine said, ''that all it wants and all it asks is the liberty of appearing.''

Now as much as ever, and with the same dedication that the first Americans brought to their Revolution, we must defend the land ethic against special interests determined to convert our natural wealth into the coin of their own heedless profits. We must insist that our posterity, too, shall be able to see and sing of an America where ''God shed his grace on thee - from sea to shining sea."

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