That Wild Country
An Epic Journey through the Past, Present, and Future of America's Public Lands
By Mark Kenyon
Dec 1, 2019
Oct 27, 2021
Nov 7, 2021
American public lands are special
Teddy Roosevelt, speaking on the Grand Canyon: “Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.”
Strive for immutability.
Every American is granted free reign to some of the most beautiful lands in the world. Public lands belong to all of us.
Leopold: penned an essay titled the “Land Ethic”: we should see land as a part of our community, not as a commodity.
Land transfer movement: driven by the belief that the federal government should not own public lands. Some think they should be transferred to individuals, counties, or states.
The North Country Trail (NCT) spans from NY to ND. Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT), the NCT is not completely finished. Parts remain unmarked.
History of our public lands
Forested land near London was reserved for the nobility to hunt on. Settlers in the Americas did not have such restrictions. It was a wild free for all.
Yellowstone was not the first public land, but it was the first large scale public lands project. The first “National Park”. An important shift in understanding our land as something that can be commoditized to something that can and should be preserved.
The bison at Yellowstone are a microcosm of what has happened to American land over time. They used to number in the tens of millions, and they were hunted down nearly to extinction. Today there are around 5000 in the park.
Explorations, partially funded by railroads (with the goal of boosting tourism demand) → legislation to make Yellowstone into a public park. At the same time, many wanted to avoid the commoditization that had happened to Niagara Falls. Also the land was likely not suitable for farming, mining, homesteading, or raising livestock. Due to a combination of these incentives, the law passed with little issue in congress. “America had enacted what some still call its best idea. And began its own National wonderland.”
John Muir was born in Scotland but raised in the states. His time in the sierras oriented his calling towards conservationism. His work led to the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant (now known as Kings Canyon) National Parks.
Teddy Roosevelt set the precedent of creating federal reserves of public lands primarily for wildlife conservation.
Took priority over individual industries like mining, hunting, or logging. This created enemies across industry, which resulted in enemies in congress.
Roosevelt worked very closely with Gifford Pinchot
Roosevelt: “I like people who take the next step, not theorize about the 200th.”
Aldo Leopold: “it’s much easier to keep wild areas than to create them”.
Wilderness will forever rival the most immersive forms of human art.
Wilderness regions were put into law as “Primitive Areas”—only allowed to have primitive infrastructure and modes of transit. In wilderness areas, it is illegal to build any permanent structure or to use any mechanized transportation.
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): enlisted young and unemployed to improve public lands.
Signage. Planting trees.
Created as part of FDR’s New Deal years.
Some were opposed to the roads, visitor centers, power lines, etc. Bob Marshall and Leopold demanded for more primitive conservation. The Wilderness Act solidified primitive lands.
Under FDR the government enacted the Duck Stamp Act and other mechanisms to tax permits and hunting guns and ammo, with proceeds directly financing conservation.
In the 60’s American’s created a swath of new public land designations: National Scenic Trails, National Lakeshores, National Rivers, etc. They created a fund driven in part by profits from offshore drilling. More solid mandates, multi-use principles to drive how to manage lands.
John Rockefeller bought up a bunch of land near Grand Teton National Park with the intention of gifting it to the government to expand the park. This became difficult to achieve, but eventually FDR accepted and incorporated it into the Jackson Hole National Monument. Though this was politically difficult, he stood by his decision and did not give in.
The power of nature
Why go to the wilderness? “There are many answers. All good. Each sufficient.”
It’s hard to nap without feeling guilty during our day to day professional lives. It’s easy with space and quiet afforded by the wild. “Stand still, and silent, and small.”
Pain and discomfort are part of the bargain of being in the wilderness. Be palpably thankful that you are in such a beautiful place and are still above ground.
Wilderness allows us to see ourselves truly free, individual, and separate. You do not have that in land that has been built up by other humans.
Ed Abbey: “Walking takes longer… than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed.”
You can’t see everything from a car
Sip coffee, don’t drain coffee. Be active. Enjoy the pleasures of everyday life.
The author hunts all red meat that he and his family consume. “Place that bloody burden squarely on my shoulders.”
Teddy Roosevelt was heavily influenced by the North Dakotan Badlands.
He was a hunter and a conservationist. Though to some this seems contradictory, hunting made it clear to him the importance of conservation.
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