Westerners: These are my public lands, partner
October 24, 2006
“Somebody owns it,” my father said, sweeping his hand across the Pocono Mountains zipping by the windshield. I was a young boy when he told me this, and I can remember being puzzled by how someone could own a mountain.If you grew up in Pennsylvania as I did, you understood that just about everything was owned by somebody, and if you wanted to walk or hunt somewhere, you had to get permission. Something like 13 percent of Pennsylvania is public land; where I grew up none of it was. I read somewhere that in Texas only 4 percent of its land is public so it must be difficult for someone from there to have an appreciation for public land when they see so little of it. It is hard for many people to understand that more than 50 percent of what they see in Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado and other states of the West is Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management land. They don’t know what it is like to just walk into the mountains without permission.Henri Louis Bergson, a philosopher, once observed that when we enter an apartment for the first time, it seems strange. The next time it is less alien and eventually it is ours. He said it was élan vital, a mysterious life force from us that embeds itself into the walls and carpets until it becomes an extension of ourselves.I don’t know about élan vital. I do know that when I go to a national park, pay my entrance fee, walk and gawk and drive out, I’ve never felt any ownership of the park. I know I do not feel any ownership in an open space visited by a lot of people. It seems the fewer people you encounter when you are hiking, the more you can own the land. The bigger the corporation, the less I feel I own it when I work for it. About the only thing you feel ownership of in a big company is the cubicle in which you work. I have felt ownership or close to that at some small businesses. There seems to be an indirect relationship between size and ownership. Have you ever noticed, say, in school, the desk you sit at the first day becomes the one you own for the rest of the year? And if someone takes that seat before you get there, you feel you have been robbed?Something like this happens between Westerners and public lands. I am a volunteer backcountry ranger in Colorado with the Indian Peaks Wilderness Alliance, and over the years I have come to own those mountains (I also own the middle section of the Wind River Range in Wyoming).The Wilderness Alliance is a collection of people who saw Indian Peaks getting trashed by visitors and decided to do something about their “property.” At first, we were called backcountry hosts. A bad choice of names – you felt you had to offer hikers coffee instead of warning them about hypothermia and lightning. Ranger sounds much more macho. We dress up in junior Smokey Bear outfits of tan shirt, green pants, patches and a badge. The Forest Service likes to have us on the ground because their rangers spend most of the time in an office writing forest plans and environmental impact statements.I get upset when someone builds a fire too close to one of my lakes. I have a fantasy of saying to a camper in the wrong place, “I tol’ ya to move thet far, son.” I pull out my big pistola and point it at the fire-ring and blow it apart.Fortunately, the Forest Service will not let me carry firearms. I proudly show people some of the wonderful things on my mountains. I believe I am like a lot of Westerners about our public lands. Oh, we complain about oil and gas derricks destroying animal migration routes. We clothe these and other outrages with the robes of environmental concern, of the sanctity of roadless places. The truth is, in our doggy hearts we own the mountains.It may be as simple as emotional ownership versus physical ownership. The public land we grow to love is wild and free because we can walk into it any time we please with nobody’s say-so. It’s close to pristine because no one stores old cars and washing machines on it. We in the West don’t need no stinkin’ paper to tell us we own something. We feel it.Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and draws in Boulder, Colo.