Thursday, May 29, 2014

Not too late for Obama's conservation legacy -- May 29, 2014 column


From the maddeningly crammed streets and vulgar displays along the Virginia Beach oceanfront, it’s only a 40-minute drive to the peaceful and scenic Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Back Bay -- a 9,100-acre barrier island preserve of island marshes, maritime forests and pristine beaches – was established by President Franklin Roosevelt by proclamation in 1938 as a haven and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.

More than 120,000 people visit the refuge every year, most to watch the 10,000 snow geese and ducks that fly over Back Bay during the peak of the winter migration. Even in the off season, though, there’s plenty to see. Herons and snowy egrets pose majestically. Turtles sun themselves on log rivieras and snakes, naturally, slither. 

On the Blue Goose Express, an open air tram, local history buff Bob Baxter leads visitors back in time. A century ago, the area was dotted with duck hunting lodges, visited by wealthy industrialists. Life-saving stations every seven miles along the coast plucked unfortunate mariners from the sea.

We take a short hike to historic Wash Woods in False Cape State Park, which adjoins Back Bay. All that remains of the remote community of farmers, fishermen and hunters and a church that seated 300 worshippers are the steeple and about a dozen tombstones under whispering live oaks.  

About 47 million people will flee urban noise and stress for the tranquility of national refuges this year. 
Visitors will savor birdsong and unspoiled scenery; they’ll take pictures, swim and camp.

Few may think about how important presidents have been in keeping our wild spaces in citizens’ hands.

Since Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill establishing Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, presidents have played a crucial role in conservation. 

“I will do everything in my power to protect . . . great natural beauties of this country,” vowed Theodore Roosevelt, who enjoyed being president because he liked having “my hand on the lever.”

The 26th president set aside 230 million acres in public land and created 150 national forests, 51 bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments.

He left his successors the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president or Congress the power to designate national monuments. The president can act unilaterally. 

He’s no TR, but Obama still could leave a conservation legacy.

“I’ve preserved more than 3 million acres of public lands for future generations. And I am not finished,” 
Obama said May 21 when he used the Antiquities Act to create the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, protecting half a million acres in New Mexico.

But the congressional resistance Obama faces extends even to conservation. Dozens of bills that would protect lands and wildlife are stalled in Congress.

In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed rules to regulate oil and gas production on the national refuge system.  Yes, more than 200 wildlife refuges have existing oil and gas infrastructure and 100 have active oil and gas wells.

The government owns the land but not the oil and gas mineral rights beneath the ground, and the government lacks the authority to regulate private oil and gas development on the refuges. That’s why it has proposed rules.

Noah Matson, vice president of Lands Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, warned a House panel May 20 of instances on wildlife refuges of oil drums oozing toxic chemicals, oil-topped open waste ponds, abandoned storage tanks and rusted, leaking oil pipes “fixed” with plastic bags and duct tape.

Two Louisiana Republicans on the committee blasted Matson for his “emotional” testimony and for failing to credit the “innovative” fixes.

Republicans also want to curb presidential power under the Antiquities Act, which presidents of both parties have used. Obama has used the act 11 times, starting in November 2011 with the Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, Va.  

The House voted in March to limit the president’s power to designate monuments, requiring reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act. The bill has little chance in the current Senate because the Democratic majority is opposed.

When signing the order designating Organ Mountains a national monument, Obama said he understands “our obligation to be good stewards to the next generation – to make sure that our children’s children get the same chance to experience all of these natural wonders.”

He needs to follow TR’s lead, keep his hand on the lever and follow through on his conservation promises.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Restoring the meaning of Memorial Day -- May 22, 2014 column


For many of us, Memorial Day is a long weekend of backyard barbecues and beach trips, the unofficial start of summer fun.

But it wasn’t always so. Memorial Day began as a spontaneous outpouring of grief after the ravages of the Civil War.

At least 620,000 soldiers – about 2.5 percent of the population – perished in that war. Recent estimates put the toll far higher – closer to 20 percent of the population. Nearly every family lost someone. To cope with their sorrow, groups of women began visiting their loved ones’ graves and decorating them with spring flowers.

The ritual, known as Decoration Day, sprang up in the North and South. One of the first was in Columbus, Ga., in April 1866, when women visited a cemetery to put flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers who had died in the bloody battle of Shiloh four years earlier. Seeing the neglected graves of Union soldiers, the women also placed flowers there.    

In 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, who led an organization of Union veterans, declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30 with ceremonies and strewn flowers. It’s thought he chose the date because flowers would be in bloom all over the country, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs history.

By the end of the 19th century, nearly every community dedicated May 30 to remember their Civil War dead. After World War I, the commemoration was extended to honor all who died in American wars.

How, you ask, did we go from solemnly strewing flower petals to buying mattresses, appliances and big screen TVs?

Thank -- or blame – the 1960s, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson. LBJ signed the Uniform Holiday bill in 1968, and, since 1971, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Washington’s birthday (now Presidents Day) have been commemorated on Mondays.

“This will mean a great deal to our families and our children,” LBJ said in a signing statement. “It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wide range of recreational and cultural activities.”

He didn’t predict that the true meaning of the holidays might get lost in traffic jams.  

For years, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii tried to restore the dignity of Memorial Day. Inouye, a veteran who lost his right arm in combat in World War II, introduced a bill in every Congress to move Memorial Day back to May 30.

“In our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation,” Inouye said in a speech on the Senate floor in 1999. “Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer,” he said.

Inouye continued his valiant effort until his death in 2012. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii has taken up the quest, introducing the bill last year. 

We don’t have to wait on Washington to honor the fallen on Memorial Day. Many of the 131 national cemeteries as well as state veterans cemeteries have ceremonies on or around Memorial Day. To find one near you, check out the list on the VA's National Cemetery Administration page.
At a time when the VA is suffering from a health care scandal, here’s some good news. Veterans’ survivors rank employees at the national cemeteries tops in customer service among all federal agencies and major national corporations.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index surveys people about their dealings with government agencies and companies. Every three years, the survey asks about national cemeteries. In each of the last five surveys – 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010 and 2013 – the cemeteries have received the top rating for customer service in the public and private sectors.  

National cemeteries are quiet, green spaces that invite solemn reflection. Make time for a walk in history. Read the names and dates on the white markers. Thank those who gave their all for us and our freedom. Happy Memorial Day.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A storyteller turns preacher for math, science in digital age -- May 14, 2014 column


Twenty-five years ago, a rising star at Time magazine got on a train in New York bound for Washington to hear one of his heroes give a lecture.

How quaint, I hear you saying, with 21st century impatience. Print. Train. Hero. Lecture. Ho hum.

Not so fast. The magazine man was Walter Isaacson, then 36, who had been writing on a computer since the early 1980s, the only writer at Time doing so. Apple’s Steve Jobs would later ask him to write his biography. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Isaacson’s hero was novelist Walker Percy, chosen to deliver the 1989 Jefferson Lecture. Its sponsor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, says the lecture is “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.”

Percy’s lecture on “The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind” was one of his last public appearances. He died a year later at 74.

Isaacson had known “Uncle Walker” – actually the uncle of a friend -- since his boyhood in New Orleans. Isaacson tried to figure out what Percy did. He had trained as a doctor and people called him Dr. Percy, but he didn’t practice medicine.

“He seemed to be at home most days, eating hog’s head cheese and sipping bourbon,” said Isaacson, who was about 9 when Percy’s first novel, “The Moviegoer,” appeared in 1961. That’s when Isaacson realized someone could make a living as a writer the way others did as an engineer or a fisherman.  “The Moviegoer” won the National Book Award, and Percy kept writing.

Percy told him two types of people come out of Louisiana: preachers and storytellers.

“For God’s sake, he said, be a storyteller. The world has far too many preachers,” Isaacson recalled Monday night onstage at the Kennedy Center where he delivered the 43rd Jefferson Lecture.  

It’s heartening to know that the federal government still honors intellectual achievement – and with an old-fashioned lecture and $10,000 prize. It’s encouraging that the Concert Hall was nearly filled, although a reporter for Inside Higher Ed observed that the audience may have been slightly smaller and grayer than previously.  

That’s not surprising. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese was last year’s lecturer. Conservationist and author Wendell Berry spoke in 2012, and Harvard president and Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust was the speaker in 2011.

Isaacson, who turns 62 on May 20, is one of those achievers who make even industrious bees feel like they’ve wasted too many hours flitting around Facebook and the Food Channel.

A Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he was a political reporter, national editor and editor of new media before becoming the editor of Time. He then was chairman and CEO of CNN. He’s the author of bestselling biographies on Jobs (2011), Albert Einstein (2007) and Benjamin Franklin (2003), among others.  He’s president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan policy studies institute based in Washington.

In January 1984, Jobs lugged an original Macintosh to Time magazine to show it off. The editors called in Isaacson so they’d have one person there who actually used a computer. The two men kept in touch and in 2003, after he was diagnosed with cancer, Jobs asked Isaacson to write his biography. He didn’t mention the diagnosis. Isaacson took the opportunity to tell Jobs’s story.

“I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” Jobs told Isaacson. 
“Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” 

The authorized biography was rushed into print in 2011, days after Jobs died at 56.

Isaacson titled his lecture “The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences.” Offering a rosy view of a digital future in which human creativity fuses with technology, he acknowledged he was “singing to the choir” about indispensible human imagination.

But he also challenged those who love the arts and humanities to shake off their complacency about not knowing math or appreciating science.

“Many people who extol the arts and the humanities…will proclaim without shame (and perhaps even joke) that they don’t understand math or physics. They would consider people who don’t know Hamlet from Macbeth to be uncultured, yet they might merrily admit that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome,” he said.

“Trust me, our patron Thomas Jefferson and his mentor Benjamin Franklin would regard as a Philistine anyone who felt smug about not understanding math or complacent about not appreciating science,” he said.

And so the storyteller preached on the need for math and science in the digital age. My guess is that both Walker Percy and Steve Jobs would have approved.  

(c) 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Whose prayer? Minority gets short shrift at Supreme Court -- May 8, 2014 column

By Marsha Mercer

Imagine that you have a child with Down syndrome, and you want your town to open a group home for children with the condition.  

When you go to your town board to make your case, the meeting starts with a Christian prayer. A minister stands at a lectern. facing the small group of assembled citizens, and invites everyone to join in a prayer to Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.

For more than a decade, residents of Greece, N.Y., a town of 94,000 near Rochester, faced such a situation whenever they had business with their town board. Then, two women – one Jewish and one an atheist – complained about the Christian prayers and filed a lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court.

The women contended that the board’s practice of inviting only Christian clergy to lead the opening prayer violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over others and by sponsoring sectarian prayer.

The practice was coercive because “it is impossible not to participate without attracting attention to yourself, and moments later you stand up to ask for a group home…having just, so far as you can tell, irritated the people that you were trying to persuade,” Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor, told the court in oral arguments last November.

On Monday, a majority of justices disagreed. The court ruled 5-4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway that the board could continue opening its meetings with Christian prayers. The majority upheld the majority religion; the minority got short shrift. 

“Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.  People who “feel excluded or disrespected” by the prayers should ignore them or leave the room, Kennedy brusquely suggested.  So much for walking in someone else’s shoes.

Kennedy noted that all the clergy in the town directory from which prayer-givers were chosen were Christians, reflecting the town. His opinion was joined by the court’s four conservatives – Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. 

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote:  “I think the town of Greece’s prayer practices violate the norm of religious equality – the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

Kagan made clear she was not advocating a prayer- or religion-free zone but the board had done nothing to recognize religious diversity.  Until the lawsuit was filed, the “chaplain of the month” was always a Christian.

“So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits,” Kagan wrote. That practice “does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government,” she said. 

Joining Kagan’s dissent were Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

About three in four Americans approve of prayer at public meetings as long as officials don’t favor one belief over another, a national poll last December by Fairleigh Dickinson University found.

As with any case involving religion and government, reaction on both sides was swift and strong.  

“This is the first good thing the Supreme Court has done in a long time,” declared Randall Wise, mayor of Niceville, Fla., where the city council has been praying at meetings since before he became mayor 42 years ago.

Even if the court had ruled against the prayers, Niceville’s city council would have kept praying, he insisted.
“We would have kept doing it until they stopped us with guns or took us off to jail,” the mayor said, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported.

But the red headline on the website of Americans United for Separation of Church and State was unequivocal in its opposition:  “Supreme Mistake!”

Laycock, the University of Virginia law professor, told NPR the ruling “is a green light for local majorities to impose their religious practices on their fellow citizens.”

And that goes against the grain in our pluralistic society.

Kagan had it right. “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,” she wrote.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.