How Public Lands Have Changed for Me Over the Past 15 Years

2003. What a year. Some will recall it as the start of the decline of post-September 11th patriotism. A few will remember it was the year the Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Jersey Devils and San Antonia Spurs won their sporting championships. A handful will relive the explosion of space shuttle Columbia as it reentered earth’s atmosphere. Many will remember this as the year the US invaded Iraq on faulty pretenses. For me, 2003 was the year I knew public lands needed to play a larger role in my life. For the past 15 years, America’s Public Lands have been where I find sanity, serenity and happiness. As George W. Bush said on May 1st of that year, Mission Accomplished. 

In 2002, I was 21 years old and lost in the world. I was already on my third college and aimlessly wandering the country in search of direction. That summer, I decided to quit everything and move to Wyoming, working at a “ranch” in the shadow of the Tetons. It was here, along the Snake River, that I was finally able to shake off the fog of adolescence and recall the splendor of my childhood- Public Lands. It was also here that I changed my outlook on visitors to the parks. I worked with people from around the country and helped visitors have amazing vacations in the Tetons and Yellowstone. In 2002, I shifted my selfish desire to have the parks for myself and slowly started changing my thinking to encourage people from all walks of life to head to the nation’s public lands. 

In 2003, 265,929,272 visitors came to America’s National Parks. In 2017, this number was 330,882,751. While many will view this increase as a bad thing, bemoaning the plight of our public lands being loved to death. I celebrate the increase. I even wrote a previous article about it. More people in parks means that more people care about these lands. More people are interested in nature and history of the nation and hopefully, they will be more likely to help ensure that these lands are protected for the future. For all those scoffing at the new crowds of people and blaming social media, 99.99% of all visitors to parks are well behaved. If this wasn’t true, we would see hundreds, if not thousands of incidents at every park, every day or month. But I digress. 

Before 2002 and 2003, I was like the aforementioned moody scoffers, angry at popular areas being crowded. I glared at other hikers on trails and badmouthed them when they were no longer in ear shot. I thought I knew better than them and I did not want to share my special places. The summer of 2002 changed that. I saw as people from all over the world fell in love with nature, all because they could access it. I witnessed people with substance abuse problems stop their destructive behaviors altogether, with the goal of being able to hike longer and faster. I helped families plan trips with their young children to see their first moose, bears and wolves. I saw the transformative power of public lands and realized that we all have this in common. We are all part of the crowd and all love nature. 

Old Faithful on a Thursday afternoon during the spring, 15 minutes before eruption.

Fifteen years ago, the second layer of foundation for what I am doing today was laid down. My childhood, thanks to my parents, was the building blocks for all of this, but my 20s were where I found my voice. As the US was embattled with wars and terrorism fears, economic uncertainty and anger, I was in the woods. I wasn’t alone either. Many of the leading voices of the outdoors were doing the same thing, pushing the limits of climbing, trail running, kayaking and even nature writing. 15 years ago, guidebooks became a thing of the past, as trip reports and websites were being created to help get a new generation outdoors and on the trails. 

In the past 15 years, Public Lands and I have changed a lot. The parks have seen their budgets slashed, while the ever-increasing population longs to experience their natural beauty. As my voice for public lands grew louder, the attacks on the same areas ramped up. We watched as elected officials, primarily in the GOP, did their best to delegitimize federal agencies like the Department of Interior. We saw companies like REI grow and help bring gear to all with disposable income, while staffing for rangers and educational programs decreased. We watched people from all walks of life start to share their stories in nature, while the old guard of the outdoors wrote articles online and in magazines chastising new people in the wilderness. For a decade and a half, we have seen a division of those who go outdoors, but that is changing now. 

Giving back to the park by helping out on Public Lands Day

Today, I have hope. I see people celebrating each other’s adventures outdoors online and in person. I see the new generation of public land lovers fighting for funding and for access for all. I have witnessed a surge of inclusion and acceptance of all in nature and I am so happy about that. It has been a tumultuous 15 years and while darkness seems to still cloud the future of pubic lands, I have hope. While today I occasionally feel hopeless and frustrated by all the blame of who is “ruining nature,” I see the progress we have made in 15 years. We have increased knowledge of Leave No Trace Principles. We have encouraged families to get out into nature, thanks to the free National Park’s pass given to 4th Graders around the country. We have seen social media track down people leaving graffiti and breaking rules in parks and helping bring their actions to justice. We have also witnessed the economic power of public lands and the positive things the do for communities around the country. 

In the past 15 years, public lands have had their ups and downs, but despite the fact that the majority seems to be downs, I remain optimistic. Thanks to you all, the voices of stewardship and public lands, we are impacting the younger generations in ways we never experienced. We are elevating the importance of nature for the mind, body and soul. We are documenting climate change, cleaning up trash and making more rivers and bodies of water clean and pristine. I hope that in another 15 years, I can look back at this with pride, knowing that this is the start of something great. This could be start of the new awakening of nature, public lands and climate awareness and I am proud to be a small, yet passionate voice. 

*This article was written and published in one hour for #NatureWritingChallenge. The topic was “How has your public land’s experiences changed in the last 15 years.”


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