“Without enough wilderness America will change. Democracy, with its myriad personalities and increasing sophistication, must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths — animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies — or it will dwindle and pale.” — Walt Whitman
When I first read about the Public Lands Initiative Act I thought it was a joke, probably because I read about it on Facebook and, well, who can believe anything posted on social media as “news,” at least not without a little research using more reputable outlets. But I kept hearing about this argument over public lands here and there, so when I read about it in High Country News I knew it had to be true. In 2012, the state of Utah passed legislation entitled the Transfer of Public Lands Act, which requires the Federal Government to cede the majority of federal land located in Utah to the state after 2014. Proponents of the Act claim that a public lands transfer was written into Utah’s enabling legislation. Opponents say that there is nothing in Utah’s enabling legislation that would hold up in court and that legal pursuit to implement the Act would likely fail. The Public Lands Initiative Act is one step in wrestling federal lands away from the government. The purpose, if passed, would be to increase energy development and timber harvests while loosening environmental restrictions all to generate revenue for the state. Proponents of a public lands transfer include the Bundy’s of the world, and as long as folks like those who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are the primary supporters of these efforts, they will almost certainly fail. Still, that does little to assuage me fear over a public lands transfer, especially if these ideas spread, which they seem to be.
Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, the sponsor of the Transfer of Public Lands Act, founded the American Lands Council — an organization whose mission “is to secure local control of western public lands by transferring federal public lands to willing States.” The organization is now headed by Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder. Counties from 9 of the eleven western states belong to the American Lands Council.
I’m not saying that federal lands are managed exactly as they should be, or as I want them to be. They are not all pristine wilderness areas. Sometimes I forget that living in the middle of a giant protected area, more or less since there are several proposed mining claims on Forest Service land near where I live which threaten to disrupt this corner of paradise. Federal lands fall into several categories with varying degrees of protection – wilderness areas, multiple use national forests, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management areas with oil and gas development and grazing leases, and national parks where deer and antelope really do play. If it were up to me, I’d protect all these lands at the highest level, but then I used paper to pen the first draft of this blog, and later, my computer with minerals extracted from a mine somewhere – if not my backyard then someone else’s.
Before settling (for now) in Wyoming I moved around a lot traveling from one wild place to another. At the start of each road trip I’d pull out my atlas from underneath the passenger seat of my trusty black Saturn, which I named Gulliver to celebrate my love of travel. I’d trace my finger along the highway that would lead me to my next destination and pause over all the green areas. Those splashes of green felt like home to me on the page. They were my refuge on long road trips. I knew I could find a safe spot to camp there, and I knew I’d feel safer there than in a cheap motel because that would be all I could afford. Even now, with a bit more money in my pocket, I feel more comfortable in national forests with their brown signs than among the network of blue highways criss-crossing over white space on the map – an ironic color as it implies there is nothing there. My atlas served as the road map to those green areas and the national forests they represent served as the road map to my life. I loved that atlas until Georgia tore away from the spiral spine and Montana lay crumpled on the floor of my Saturn – the folds a miniature replica of the state’s topography.
Those green spaces taught me about self reliance and the innate good in people. Once, while camping in the Shenandoah’s, I locked my keys in my car. I realized what I had done just as the door slammed shut and it was only a moment too late. There they lay on the passenger seat. I peered in at them from the clear glass window and considered busting it in. Instead, I went to bed early without dinner or a sleeping bag until the sheriff came sometime in the middle of the night. In the Florida Everglades I camped on a bed of the softest grass imaginable. Every evening hundreds of roseate spoonbills and white ibis flew silently toward their roosts on the mangrove islands just off shore. And every morning they’d return to forage in the shallow waters of the park. An older couple camped near me. The woman was terribly concerned I was traveling alone. I assured her I was quite happy. Still, she insisted on sending me a prayer and several slices of the best banana bread I’ve ever tasted. She said her secret was sour cream. I’ve been trying to re-create that banana bread for 15 years.
There were times I’ve been afraid in those green spaces and others when I’ve experienced great joy; I’ve been alternately lonely and thrilled to be alone. I’ve fallen in love and strengthened friendships. Those green spaces were (are) the only places where I feel like myself. When we travel we are stripped from the comforts of routine and are forced to be in the world as we really are without the contrivances of our regular lives. It scares me to think that we could lose places that have served as the time line against which I measure my life.
Although national parks are left out of the fray of the public lands transfer argument, they account for only 13% of all federal lands, and living in one, it doesn’t feel serene much of the time. Parks are often overused and congested. It’s the national forests and wilderness areas that I’m less likely to encounter anyone and more likely to the gain solitude I need to remain sane. What is being contested are Forest Service and BLM lands, which represent 53% of all federal lands (excluding wilderness areas, which are not included in the proposed transfer). That is a lot of green space on my worn atlas. Those who don’t see the value in preservation of public lands have never really experienced them. I’m confident of that. Terry Tempest Williams writes, “If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go . . . This is the story of our past and it will be the story of our future.”