Best Way to Protect Our Public Lands? Enjoy Them!

Wendy Redal September 20, 2011 0
My family, with our malamute Chilkoot, atop Wyoming's Medicine Bow Peak earlier this month

My family, with our malamute Chilkoot, atop Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Peak earlier this month

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I talk to Natural Habitat Expeditions readers about the benefits of getting outside onto our public lands, and, to quote Thoreau, how much we need the tonic of wildness. But apparently, as a society — at least here in the U.S. — we aren’t spending time outdoors, let alone in the backcountry, and that may be the greatest threat of all to a healthy future for our wild lands.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who may be the most thoughtful commentator on current affairs writing today, recently reflected on his family’s backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail, and what a wonder it is that in this cash-strapped, anxiety-ridden age, every one of us can revel in the riches of our public lands more or less for free.

Though user-fees are becoming more common in state parks and national forests, and national park entrance fees have climbed ever upward in recent years of government cutbacks, an escape to the mountains and wetlands and forests and wilderness that we own together can still be had for next to nothing. That’s a bargain — and a legacy — we must steward carefully, Kristof contends in his column “We’re Rich! In Nature.”

While he observes that Congressional Republicans are currently angling to reverse areas of wilderness designation and open up more public lands to logging, drilling and other resource exploitation, the greater risk to our wild lands lies with ourselves: if we’re not out recreating and retreating in the outdoors, we literally don’t know what we’re missing. And if we don’t know how precious these lands are, we are less likely to fight for their preservation.

Most people are aware that kids of today’s screen age spend far less time playing outside than they did a generation ago. But Kristof notes that fishing and hunting are becoming less popular, too, and 35 percent fewer Americans went backpacking last year than they did in 1979. We are becoming a nation of ever more sedentary indoor-dwellers who are cut off from nature. (See Richard Louv’s new book The Nature Principle, for reflections on the multitude of benefits nature has to offer us.)

Sandpipers on the Southern California coast. Photo: Wendy Worrall Redal.

Sandpipers on the Southern California coast. Photo: Wendy Worrall Redal.

If we aren’t enjoying the outdoors — if we aren’t becoming intimately acquainted with fields and woods, wildflowers and wildlife, lonely beaches and vast skies, high peaks and deep canyons — how can we work passionately to protect these irreplaceable treasures for future generations who deserve the same chance to fall in love with them as I did as a child in the ’70s?

In this case, says Kristof, “Conservationists need to expand their focus from preserving nature to encouraging the public to experience it. The only way to protect wilderness in the long run is to build a constituency for it, to grow the number of people who revel in camping under the stars…Americans who accept mosquito bites as a cheap price for some of the world’s freshest air.”

As I look down on my own pock-marked calves and shins, scratched bites of summer slowly fading from itchy red welts to little purple memories, I couldn’t agree with him more.

Yours in nurturing nature,

Wendy

Need some inspiration for your next immersion in the back of beyond? Look no further than the Natural Habitat Adventures website, where a dizzying slate of outdoor adventures awaits.

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