America the beautiful: Sustaining the public lands
Carlton M. Caves
2006 August 3

My son Jeremy, accompanied by friend Lee Walsh, is hiking the length of the Colorado Trail this summer, about 500 miles from Denver to Durango. The CT is a mishmash of dirt roads, jeep trails, the two (or more) rutted tracks of primitive roads, engineered hiking trails, traditional paths, and trails hastily constructed to stitch the whole thing together.

I have joined Jeremy and Lee for thirteen days and about 120 miles as the trail wends its way from the southern end of the Sawatch Range in central Colorado to the northeastern corner of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. I am writing this on my twelfth day, at our treeline campsite next to a defunct beaver pond on Middle Mineral Creek, high in the alpine splendor of the San Juans. We first glimpsed the San Juans on my second day, from the summit of 13,971-foot Mt. Ouray. They seemed so far away, shimmering on the southwestern horizon, that I wouldn't have credited that I could walk there, but here we are.

I have walked, at the lowest elevations, across vast grassland parks, covered with wildflowers, trekked though the coniferous forests and alpine meadows that reach up to treeline, stepped across the tundra that lies above treeline, and climbed bare, rocky peaks that tower above everything else. I have seen herds of elk grazing on the tundra and beaver ponds lining a creek for miles like beads on a necklace. I have watched marmots flee to the safety of their holes under the tundra and heard the persistent warning bleats of pikas as we walk across their rocky homes on talus slopes above treeline. I have watched a bundle of powder blue called a mountain bluebird forage across an alpine meadow from a post that marks the trail and been entertained by a tree-toed woodpecker, an uncommon and uncommonly raffish member of the woodpecker clan, as it slices bark from the trunk of a dead spruce to get at the goodies underneath, occasionally turning to feed the juvenile that follows it around the trunk. I have scared a well camouflaged, but too insecure white-tailed ptarmigan mother into wobbly flight over the tundra and seen her four chicks scurry to catch up with her.

This is grand country, truly America the Beautiful, spectacularly scenic, diverse, and full of wildlife. It exemplifies the many such places in the mountain West. Seeing it up close for two weeks prompts me to think about how we in the United States can ensure that these and other equally precious and even more threatened landscapes and ecosystems are preserved.

It is obvious to anyone who has walked the fragile montane landscapes of the West that two extremely destructive forces acting on them are cattle and motor vehicles. Logging, mining, and other resource extraction are even bigger problems in some places, but I didn't see evidence of them on the trails I walked, so I will concentrate on cattle and motor vehicles. Cattle trample vegetation, litter the landscape with their waste, and turn fragile streamside environments into muddy wastelands. Cars, jeeps, trucks, dirt bikes, and ATVs, using the trails or primitive roads that crisscross our public lands, leave behind rutted tracks that become serious sources of erosion.

There are thus three immediate imperatives for our public lands in the West, whether managed by the Park Service, the Forest Service, or the Bureau of Land Management.

Important though these immediate imperatives are, they are reactions---cries of desperation really---to pressing problems the public lands face right now. To manage the public lands into the indefinite future requires more than just a reaction to current threats. We need a set of general principles, a modern version of Aldo Leopold's land ethic, to deal with the increasing and often conflicting demands on the public lands. Here's my prioritized list: (i) sustaining the land and the plants and animals that inhabit it, that is, in modern parlance, the ecosystems; (ii) sustaining ourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally; and (iii) sustaining local and national economies. Two things about this list are important. First, the use of the word "sustaining" is deliberate: use of the public lands must be consistent with sustaining the land and any uses into the indefinite future, not on short-term grabs of resources or on other uses that cannot be continued indefinitely. Second, the list is prioritized: the land and the creatures that inhabit it come first, always, above us and our economic needs. Figuring out how to do that while still allowing for (ii) and (iii) as appropriate is the main challenge in making policy for use of the public lands in the 21st Century. Getting cattle off the alpine meadows and restricting motor-vehicle use are imperatives because they are widespread practices that are inconsistent with giving (i) the highest priority.

2006 December 4

On other land in the United States, of course, the priorities are different, with (ii) and (iii) coming to the fore, but that doesn't mean (i) must be forgotten. For example, in our homes and local communities, (i) becomes less important, generally moving to the bottom of the list. We can still pay attention to it, however, with everyone participating in a renewal of the land. Homeowners, rip out that carpet of grass, or at least part of it (in my beloved Southwest, rip it all out in favor of xeriscaping), installing in its place a garden of native plants that requires little watering and artificial fertilizer and attracts birds and butterflies and other native creatures. Public parks, schoolyards, and university grounds can do the same, educating all of us in the process. Golf courses are enormous land hogs, and they must be pressured to fit better into their local environment---golfers, you're the ones who must apply the pressure---and to kick a good part of the water and artificial-fertilizer habit that makes them such a pronounced environmental negative. Farmers and other owners of rural land can set aside spaces for native habitat and the creatures that live there. Many landowners are doing these things and more, and we should thank them for the example they are setting.

Potent examples could be set by the President and the federal government and by governors and state legislatures. Wouldn't it be wonderful if sections of the White House lawn and the National Mall, which is scheduled for a major renovation, were devoted to native plants and habitat, thereby providing a national endorsement of alternatives to the high-fertilizer-use, high--water-use grass carpets that dominate American communities. And wouldn't it be wonderful if the governor's mansion and state capitol grounds in every state taught the same lesson, specialized to each state's ecosystems.

To be successful, a land ethic in America must be founded on sustainable use of private lands. Even so, the public lands play a special role because of their great size and because they represent our collective national land ethic. Suppose we agree on my three principles above for use of the public lands, with  (i) and (ii) having clear priority over (iii). That's a very big supposition, of course, nowhere close to acceptance presently, but let's suppose it anyway on the grounds that we should work toward its general acceptance over the coming years. Then we have to ask how to manage recreational use of the public lands while making maintenance of ecosystems the highest priority.

The primary criterion for managing and regulating recreational uses of the public lands must be the impact a use has on the land and its plants and animals. Impact can be quantified, though this is sometimes difficult, and activities can be regulated accordingly. By this measure, motor vehicles are the worst, and they really have to go, except on properly maintained paved or graded dirt roads. Yet even activities generally thought to be low impact don't escape having one. Hiking and backpacking have an impact, and mountain biking has even more. Users can learn to minimize impact, and they should, but it cannot be eliminated entirely. Fishing probably has the least impact, especially since it is generally strictly regulated by the states. Hunting, too, can have a very low impact, and part of that impact can be beneficial in managing ecosystems, particularly where top-level predators are scarce. As population and demand for recreational use of the public lands increases, we're going to have to think hard as a nation about which activities and how much of them are suitable for the public lands.

Important though impact is, I think another measure, having to do with attitude, is more important. To introduce this measure, I want you to think about activities on the public lands on a scale that ranges from what I will call soft to hard. On the soft side are activities that involve observation, learning, introspection, contemplation, and appreciation; I label this end of the scale by "appreciation." At the hard end are activities that involve domination, subjugation, gathering trophies, and treating the public lands as a particularly big and rugged theme park; I label these, admittedly pejoratively, by "theme park." In between the extremes are activities characterized by challenge, adventure, and accomplishment.

Why consider this scale? Because the scale is all about how we put (i) and (ii) together and whether (i) comes out on top. The scale provides a test for attitudes toward the land: which comes first for you as a user of the public lands, you or the land? Attitudes precede impact. They determine how we, as individual users, approach the public lands, whether we're even aware of the damage our activity is causing and thus ultimately what impact we have. If you put yourself first, the land and its creatures will suffer; if the land comes first, you will be receptive to reducing your impact to a sustainable level. Attitudes can't be regulated, but they are the foundation for reducing impact. Getting our attitudes right is the prerequisite to encouraging activities whose impact is sufficiently low that the land can be sustained and passed on unharmed to future generations. Every user of the public lands needs to think---and I mean think hard---about his attitude toward the land and the impact of his activities on the land.

My ideal is the soft end of the spectrum, but I know that's unrealistic. Very few users are pure enough to be involved only in appreciation of the land and its creatures. Jeremy and Lee, for example, though they observed and learned much on the Colorado Trail, were also motivated by the challenge and adventure of walking the entire trail. The same can be said of me. When I tell my friends about my experience on the CT, I start off with the 120 miles and thirteen days carrying a 40-plus-pound pack---challenges and accomplishments---and only then get around to the elk and the three-toed woodpeckers.

Hunters and fisherman can be the purest users of the public lands, something that might come as a surprise to hikers and backpackers. Of course, hunters and fisherman also have challenges---catching the big one or killing the biggest buck---and, moreover, they're not all purists, but if they are serious about their craft, learning and careful observing must be a big part of their enterprise.

Challenges are important to our well being. I hope the public lands can continue to provide challenge and adventure for my kids and (future) grandkids and into the indefinite future. In a practical sense, therefore, what I recommend shooting for is a set of attitudes on the soft side of challenge, some combination of pure appreciation and adventure.

If you are at the theme-park end of the spectrum, out there gathering trophies without appreciating your surroundings---say, hiking all the fourteeners in Colorado only for the sake of doing so or dirt biking, thrilling to the twists and turns of trails without noticing the country you're passing through---I suggest that you re-examine your attitudes toward and activities in the outdoors. Think about moving yourself out of the focus and the land and its creatures into it. Spend some time smelling the columbines.

Addendum: 2007 January 10

Lest any reader misinterpret my comments about hunting, let me emphasize that those favorable comments do not extend to Vice President Cheney's so-called hunting. Killing dozens of farm-raised ducks or pheasants, released directly in front of you, is not hunting. It's slaughter---and gives legitimate hunters a bad name. This disgusting behavior is yet another example of Cheney's general odiousness. It does provide, however, an opportunity to apply my soft-hard scale. Is Cheney observing and appreciating nature? Far from it---he's gathering trophies in what amounts to a shooting gallery. Cheney's attitude toward the outdoors, which is way out on the theme-park end of the scale, exemplifies the sort of attitudes we should be working to eliminate.

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