This weekend 150 armed militia members have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Oregon operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This armed occupation was in response to the incarceration of two individuals convicted of arson for fires they started that damaged public land in 2001 and 2006; one of which burned 139 acres. This is another in a long string of attacks on the concept of public land. Similar issues (and people) were involved in the standoff at the Bundy Ranch in 2014 where Cliven Bundy had been involved in a decades long legal dispute regarding unpermitted grazing on public land. This attack on public land has been seen in the past few national elections with Republican candidates decrying the oppressive federal government and its ownership of land. While there are many out there who hate the idea of public land, public land is a good thing.
For people living on the East Coast, it might be hard to envision the vast amount of land under management by the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service and other federal agencies. The Eastern half of the country is blessed with highly productive lands which makes private ownership the norm. The Western half of the country does not necessarily have the same dynamic. For a couple of years, I lived in Roswell, New Mexico driving mail from one post office to another. Much of the land that I drove past was under management of the BLM. In fact, 29.5% of New Mexico is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service.
This is an area that previously was called a wasteland. The area was dry, amazingly dry. In the first couple of months I was living in Roswell, I didn’t see a single cloud. I may be one of only a few people to ever have become depressed at the sight of a clear blue sky (flat continuous blue is just as bad as flat continuous gray). I grew accustomed observing wildfires based not only on the presence of smoke, but also from the delicious smell of burning mesquite. When monsoon season hit, blinding rains and driving winds could deliver a large portion of the annual precipitation in an hour. Continuous 30 to 40 mile per hour winds defined spring and in the summer, temperatures were frequently approaching or passing 110 degrees. New Mexico is not an easy place to live, particularly if you are living off the land. There is a reason that so much land out here is owned by the federal government (40.6%): nobody wanted it when the government was giving it away.
Public ownership of this land hasn’t prevented its use for various purposes. Ranchers can lease the land to feed their cattle. The mining industry is able to lease the land for mineral extraction, even if environmental protections aren’t as strong as they should be. The use of land doesn’t end there. If you want to take a hike through this land, or go hunting, you can. You do not need to gain permission from a property owner and if you are fishing or hunting, you simply need to follow the laws relevant to those activities. My roommate frequently went coyote hunting on this land.
I took frequent advantage of these public lands. An hour away from Roswell was the Capitan Mountains, an hour and a half the Sierra Blancas, and two hours away were the Sacramento Mountains and the Guadalupe Mountains. When I wanted to turn summer off, or wanted to just get out of Roswell, I could head up to the mountains. Within these mountains, the hiking was almost limitless. In fact, I was more limited by the Ford Escort I was driving than I was by the availability of land.
Even the East Coast has a significant amount of public land. In New Jersey, 17.7% of state land is publicly owned. Despite being the state with the highest population density, a significant amount of land is dedicated to the public. Pennsylvania has 14.7% of its land and in New York, where Cailie and I got engaged at the top of a mountain, 37.0% of its land publicly owned.
Not everywhere is so blessed with acre after acre of public land. In Texas, only 1.9% of the state is publicly owned despite its low density population. I once visited historic Fort Davis and passed through the Davis Mountains on my way there. Here were some mountains that looked interesting and at least hypothetically were easy to access. These mountains are restricted in their access though. Fortunately since 1997, a growing part of the mountain is under the protection of the Nature Conservancy (something I only learned while writing this article). Nonetheless, access is still limited and it isn’t too easy to determine that the Conservancy even owns the land. Large swaths of Texas don’t even have this level of access. If you live in Midland, where do you go for your open spaces? Where do you go to hike or hunt? I don’t know about the hiking, but I suspect the answer for hunting is an hour and a half away: BLM land in New Mexico.
Public land is our land. It is ours to use and to explore. While it’s also available for grazing and mineral extraction, the fact is this is our land. This is our legacy. Without public land, we can only access nature through the good will and connections of private landowners. We need to preserve existing public land and should work to expand this public land in areas that simultaneously provide recreation and environmental protection such as riverfronts and wetlands.