Now, More Than Ever, Public Land Matters
Cover image: Wildhorse Lake embodies the incredible beauty of wild places in Eastern Oregon. All images by Renee Patrick
Since I began backpacking 14 years ago, I have hiked through more national forests, wilderness areas, national parks, and tracts of BLM than I can count…literally over 10,000 miles worth of public lands. But their worth has only recently been on my mind. I guess you could say I have taken for granted that the United States is incredibly rich in wild places.
Public Melting Pots
I’ve seen clues…the long distance trails are a melting pot of cultures from foreign countries. 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 could not walk 2,000 continuous miles for months on end in a space that has been created for the trees, elk, butterflies, rivers and recreation.
Oregon Desert Trail
Since starting to work on establishing the Oregon Desert Trail with the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) last year, 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 equal; 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 country.
Why does this matter?
Because 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 do have an impact on the world around us; consumption on a global scale does impact where we get our lumber, minerals for technological devices, and oil to fuel the cars we love to road trip in.
And 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 (intentional or not), we can destroy the very land that sustains us and our wildlife and way of living.
If we protect everything from development and extraction, the cost of those goods and services can go up; it impacts those who make a living from timber harvest, mining, or drilling. It’s not an easy answer; it’s not an easy question. 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…that balance strives for sustainability, but is often difficult to manage for all purposes out there…even recreation.
After 5 sections and over 6 weeks, Renee finished the entire Oregon Desert Trail.
Working to build this route provides an opportunity to learn about the different layers of public land management: what influences it, what threatens it, what happens if pieces don’t get protected… 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 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, now I have the opportunity to help facilitate recreation experiences for a much bigger audience: hikers, ultrarunners, boaters, bikers, horseback riders, snow shoers, skiers…the list goes on.
Be The Change You Wish To See
I love the saying “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” and for my part I wish to better educate myself on public lands, and want to help others to do the same. Through understanding, I believe we can better care for and steward our special places.
The Steens Mountain Wilderness became the first cow-free wilderness in the United States in 2000
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, I believe the first step is through exploration and adventure in these wonderful and wild places…the next is through education.