A version of this article first appeared on the Oboz blog, and is used with permission.
Since I began backpacking 14 years ago, I’ve hiked through more national forests, wilderness areas, national parks and tracts of BLM land than I can count…literally over 10,000 miles through public lands. But their worth has only recently been on my mind. I guess you could say I’ve taken for granted that the United States is incredibly rich in wild places.
I’ve seen how the long-distance trails on public lands are a melting pot of people and cultures from other countries. And many of those hikers come to the U.S. because of the lack of public lands in their home countries. Their wild lands are gone, developed, extracted, or patchworked so that one would never be able to walk 2,000 continuous miles for months on end in a space that has been left for the trees, elk, butterflies, rivers and recreation.
Since starting to work on establishing the Oregon Desert Trail with the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), I’ve begun to pay closer attention to public lands. ONDA has been working for 30 years to protect, defend and restore the land in Eastern Oregon, and the Oregon Desert Trail passes through some of the most spectacular areas east of the Cascade Mountains. Not all of these lands are equally protected; not all are managed for wildlife or river health, or recreation. I’ve learned there are many layers to the puzzle of public land throughout Oregon and the rest of the country. Why does this matter?
Public land access isn’t guaranteed
There’s no guarantee the land we currently love to explore will be open to us next year, or in perpetuity. Our modern culture of wants and desires often do have an impact on the world around us; consumption on a global scale affects where we get our lumber, minerals for technological devices and oil to fuel the cars we love to road trip in.
Those resources come from the land. So the question becomes: Where is it appropriate to extract, versus protect? If we extract too much or cause environmental damages—intentionally or not—we can destroy the very land that sustains us and our wildlife and way of living.
Land use issues are deeply complex
If we protect everything from development and extraction, the cost of those goods and services can go up. It affects those who make a living from timber harvest, mining or drilling. What to protect, and what to extract is not an easy question, not an easy answer. But since working to build a 750-mile route through Eastern Oregon, I’m ready to tackle the hard questions.
Our land management agencies are trying to strike a balance between extractive practices and protective measures. A balance that strives for sustainability, but it’s often difficult to manage for all purposes out there …even recreation.
Management must account for multiple purposes
Working to build this route taught me about the different layers of public land management: What influences it, what threatens it, what happens if pieces don’t get protected, what happens if they do. It’s given me the chance to know a place on a much deeper level than I ever considered before, when my main concern was simply getting to Canada before the snow falls.
Public land is essential for outdoor recreation, and while my recreation has been a relatively personal experience in the past, I now have the opportunity to help facilitate recreation experiences for a much bigger audience: hikers, ultrarunners, boaters, bikers, horseback riders, snowshoers, skiers and more.
Be the change you wish to see
I love the saying “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” because, for my part, I wish to better educate myself on public lands issues, and want to help others to do the same. Through understanding, I believe we can better care for and steward our special places.
I plan to explore these layers of land management by using the Oregon Desert Trail as a guide. As one hikes, bikes or paddles across Eastern Oregon, the maps, guidebook, and companion materials can be a tool to understand the different landscapes, their importance in the ecological diversity of the area, and the ways in which they are managed.
We all have a say in the future of public land, and I believe the first step is through exploration and adventure in these wonderful and wild places. The next is through education. So keep getting out there and learning about the public land around you, so you, too, will be better equipped to protect it properly for the future.