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Paul Andersen: The generosity of sharing our public lands

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

A light breeze sets the aspens to quaking. The air is cool and fresh. The sun is warm. The sky is that deep blue that is impossible to describe. Squirrels chatter as they trim cones from a subalpine fir.

My friend, Graeme, and I have set up a low-impact camp in a small copse of aspen trees on a mountainside where few others go. Our camp is invisible to all but the squirrels, half a dozen elk grazing the meadows above, and a few robins that warble melodically from the branches overhead.

There is no designated trail to our camp, no route descriptions or blog reports about the setting in which we find the peace we are seeking. We speak in low, quiet tones because the natural silence is of value to us, and we don’t want to break it with our voices.

Anyone who has lived here for a decade or more knows that backcountry use is ramping up and that finding quiet places is becoming a challenge.

Despite lockdowns and the closing of most cultural activities in the Roaring Fork Valley, record numbers of hikers and bikers are discovering our beautiful public lands. I say “our” because most of us who live here take a sense of ownership of the landscapes we survey right out our doors.

Most trailheads are now so jammed with cars – largely because social distancing requires individual car trips – that parking is the newest challenge for outdoor trips. Hiking has its rigors, but parking is where it all starts. This requires newfound patience to cope with the highest demand in recent memory – perhaps in history.

It’s easy to get irritated by this new rush for backcountry access, which is prompted by an essential need to escape the stressors of COVID. Many urbanites are desperate to breathe the free and liberating mountain air, and good for them! But is it good for us?

How accustomed we have been to uncrowded trails, depopulated wilderness areas, available campgrounds. Now that’s changed. And in winter, where “uncrowded by design” once defined our ski areas, regional ski passes and a growing local population have brought chairlift lines. In March, when the lifts were stilled and the ski mountains hushed, there came long strings of hike skiers.

“We had forgotten that we are ecological being,” writes Patrick Lydon in “Yes!” magazine. His commentary describes the surging popularity of urban parks, the only outlets for shut-in city dwellers who are realizing and appreciating a new connection with nature.

“Humans are remembering something we had forgotten during our pre-corona days, sitting in traffic or at desks in climate-controlled cubicles…now many of us are using this time to connect with part of ourselves that we had been neglecting for a long time.”

While crowded trailheads may feel like an inconvenience, the rediscovery of nature is a very positive trend. The more people who find comfort and solace in nature, the more support our parks and public lands will receive. Conservation will grow, and wilderness will be afforded legitimacy from a newly conscious advocacy.

Land management agencies are struggling to contain this newborn enthusiasm, strapped as they are by funding cuts and staff reductions, so there will be some uncomfortable adjustments and regulations. Still, measures are required to protect ecological values from being trampled.

And yet, there are places where there are no people – if you know where to go and have a comfort level getting there. And if that requires more planning, more effort and more physical rigor, that’s a good thing for enhancing individual relationships with the land.

So, rather than fume and fuss over crowded trailheads, now is the time to see crowds as a sign of support for nature and for the public lands that we, who have lived here in uncrowded times, have had the luxury of savoring for many years.

This is not a time for selfish disdain for those seeking what we have known, but for welcoming newcomers who will hopefully gain what we have gained – a love for the landscapes that make our mountain home so beautiful, so therapeutic, and so loved.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at andersen@rof.net.


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