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Don’t fence me in

Paul Andersen

They’re not making land anymore, and that makes it valuable. The land reflects our culture and our collective history. The land and our relationship to it describes who we are as citizens of Planet Earth.The land can be a unifying force, or it can be divisive. It can bring us to war and killing or it can sustain us with beauty and life-giving nutrition. It can provide great wealth or reflect our deepest poverty. The land can be hallowed and sacred, or it can be desecrated and defiled. It took a visionary biologist and philosopher named Aldo Leopold to recognize and teach us the value of the land, not as real estate or recreation, but as part of the web of life. Leopold went a step further and assigned man a responsibility to all of life.Leopold learned that a strictly utilitarian view of land and wildlife is shortsighted, that there is greater value to nature and open spaces. “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”Frederick Jackson Turner also recognized the land as something vital to us and our character. Turner, a historian, understood that the American frontier, the great American landscape, gave people a sense of the possible. In 1903, he wrote: “From the beginning of the settlement of America, the frontier regions have exercised a steady influence toward democracy.” It was proved by Lewis and Clark a century before Turner when their Corps of Discovery granted the vote to a woman, a Native American Indian, and a black African. It happened in the autumn of 1805 on the Pacific coast when the Corps was faced with a critical decision – whether to turn back and head east, risking a winter crossing of the Bitterroots, or to winter out on that barren seacoast. Lewis and Clark determined that since every member of the party would endure whatever hardships this decision mandated, each member was entitled to join in that decision. Indian guide Sacagawea – a woman and a Native American – was given the vote. So was a man named York, William Clark’s black slave.Many of us fled the crowded cities and gentrified suburbs in search of the openness of Western lands and the sense of freedom they promise. And we stay for the same reasons. “Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above … don’t fence me in.”Open land offers a human escape valve, a haven from the frenetic world of industry and information. Wild land provides us with an esthetic appreciation and a spiritual connection to nature. It humbles us with its majesty. It inspires us with its ruggedness. Benton McKay, a pioneer regional planner, warned in the 1920s against what he called “the metropolitan invasion and the spread of its mechanized environment.” Every acre saved from that invasion is a saving of the human psyche, an act of generosity to the future.In Phoenix, suburbia eats an acre and a half every hour. In Denver, an explosion of sprawl could double the size of the metro to more than 1,000 square miles by midcentury. Sprawl and population test our willingness to preserve and protect the land.We need smart regional planning that sets aside key parcels for their view planes, pastoral beauty and wildlife values. We need to support land trusts and fund them to buy and preserve open space. We need partnerships between ranchers, developers and other large landowners based on a commonality for the love of the land – the kind of love Leopold expressed. We need to value the land as if it means something for our children and their children. Because, they’re not making it anymore.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.


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