I was recently asked what my wishlist for Public Lands would be, and since we are just days away from the 2018 mid-term elections, I wanted to give a thought out and carefully crafted response. However, this question was posed as a #NatureWritingChallenge, meaning I only had one hour to write this. This is what I wrote:
America’s Public Lands are in trouble. They have been since they were created and probably will be long after I perish. In the last 100 years, we have witnessed the rise of environmentalism and a culture that values public lands and outdoor experiences highly. We saw the increase in visitation to Public Lands directly coincide with the slashing of budgets year after year. It seemed like for each new person visiting a National Park, congress would reduce the Park Service’s budget by a percentage. We have seen political engagement from Patagonia and REI, social media campaigns from the Outdoor Industry pushing to #VoteTheOutdoors. Yet, election after election, America keeps sending people into office who appear to have little care for our cherished natural lands, most of which appear to have seen neither hide nor hare of a National Park or Monument. Sure there are some great champions of Public Lands (Hi, Representative Kilmer of Washington State!), but most are out of touch and unwilling to give Public Lands the love that they need.
In an ideal world, I would vote them all out and replace them with people who cherish Public Lands like me, but that isn’t a reality because I can only vote once, in just one state. Instead, all I can do is write this post and see what happens.
Topping my list is proper funding for National Parks, National Forests and all public lands. To me, proper funding doesn’t just mean what they need, but what they require to be relevant to visitors and able to handle the next 100 years of outdoor enthusiasts. I would love to see a time when we spend even a quarter as much money on funding our Public Lands for outdoor recreation as we do for our endless military buildup. Image how great roads, visitor centers, trails, campgrounds and every other facet of our public lands could be if they had billions of dollars to do as they pleased. With proper funding, we can address many of the issues plaguing the lands we love. We can make this happen, but we need to be organized, loud, articulate and willing to vote in the right people. Sadly, I do not see this happening in the next few years, or even decade. Plain and simple, we treat our Public Lands like garbage, barely giving them enough to survive. It is little wonder that we are seeing seriously issues all over. We need fully funded parks like we need clean air and water.
Next up, I wish to see Public Lands and nature have a greater importance in our already struggling education system. Few schools take field trips to Public Lands, fewer kids learn about nature of any sort as part of their daily curriculum. The Every 4th Grader in Park program is a cute start, but fails to do more than hand out a free pass to kids and their families. Children everywhere around the country who go to public schools are basically taught to ignore Public Lands, instead being told that other aspects of life are more important. However, in school isn’t the only place where appreciation and stewardship for Public Lands need to be taught. As a society, we still hold on to myths and false assumptions about nature and wilderness. We have groups of grown ass adults living in fear of being attacked by wolves while visiting Yellowstone’s trails. We have a hatred of animals that are predators, and a blatant disregard for clean water, air and lands. We see people outraged at plastic straws at Starbucks, but completely ok with all of the packaging that most foods come in. For lack of a better way of saying this, our society is dumb regarding our impact on nature. This needs to change now. People think climate change is a hoax and it is all because we do not have an education system built into our society that values making the planet as healthy as possible. I could write about this for hours, but I must move on.
One thing that really bothers me is a select subsection of society that feels Public Lands and National Parks are easily accessible for all. Call it privilege, because these people obviously do not know how expensive it is for a family to take a road trip and spend a day, weekend or week exploring America’s Public Lands. I would love to see Public Lands be more affordable for those in need, as wilderness and nature can change a life. We need to see more families outside, away from screens and away from the stresses of home life. Everyone needs a vacation and I would love to live in a world where people of all ages went into nature and were good stewards of the land.
Another things that bothers: While the demographics of park visitors are slowly changing, the National Park experience is still mostly a white one. I honestly do not know how we can change this, but it is great to see great people putting in this work and encouraging people of all walks of life to visit and celebrate our Public Lands. I really wish I could speak more on this and help, but as a 30-something year old white male who spends nearly all his summers in National Parks, my Public Land’s experience is pretty unique. I do need to say that you should all check out The Trail Posse. They are doing amazing work on this issue and are super rad! All I can say is that the level of racism and hatred of anyone non-white by many Park visitors has disgusted me far more than I can express. In towns all around National Parks, I have seen locals bad mouth foreign visitors, follow around anyone who looks different in stores or scream in people’s faces to speak English. This is disgusting and terrible and if this occurs around Public Lands, the places set aside for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, I can only imagine how rough it is everywhere else. The sense of entitlement I see is sickening and I call it out every chance I get, but I am only one voice.
Another issue I wish I could change about exploring Public Lands is transportation. Right now, in all but a handful of Parks, the only way to get around is to drive yourself from point A to B. While this is a fun way to see, explore and experience the parks, it also increased the need for larger parking areas, causes traffic jams and makes trying to run, hike or backpack in a park difficult. For many, this is a non-issue, as we are a car culture, but it doesn’t hav to be this way. I would love to be able to hop on a bus at a campground or visitor center and be dropped off at a trailhead or even a popular area, able to explore without the stresses that having a car brings. In 2017, I ran the roads of Yellowstone and had to rely on hitchhiking to get back to my car after each run. I looked into paying someone to shuttle me around, but that cost around $100 a day, pretty much $99 more than I could afford. With a bus system, I could have easily gotten a ride back and forth and been able to enjoy my day more. The same thing has happened to me while hiking on non-loop trails. Some day, I would love to see buses running all day, giving folks the freedom to explore at their leisure without having to drive and pollute the air more. This would also cut down on roadside trash, as people couldn’t jus throw shit out their windows.
The issue of crowding is contentious at the moment. People enjoy saying that America’s Public Lands are being loved to death. It is basically an article a week on someone’s website. Even I have written about this, but generally in a way that doesn’t blame new visitors to National Parks, instead talking about the increase in America’s population directly correlating to the increased to National Parks. Crowding is a serious issue, but needs to be talked about in a calm and non-reactionary way. With fully funded parks and public transportation, many of the crowding complaints will fade away, but there is still a fear that too many people will ruin a place. The only solution to this, aside from zero or even negative population growth, something no one wants to talk about, is to talk about even more awesome destinations, giving the general population thousands of ridiculously rad places to visit. Right now, people respond to listicals telling them the “Top 10 Blah Blah Blahs in the Country,” flocking to these areas as if they are the only places to see. To reduce crowding, people need more options. That means less secret trails, more infrastructure around lesser known areas, an education system that teaches them how to be good stewards of the land and a way to get around without driving their own cars. This will reduce crowding, guaranteed. Yes, some places will still be popular, but not to the degree we are currently seeing.
Finally, we get to John Muir. John Muir was a huge figure for Public Lands, but the current worship of the man is a bit insane. Nearly every National Park you go, you’ll find his quotes or a picture of him, propping this man up on a pedestal. While he is a champion of the National Park, each park has their own local champions who were instrumental in the creation of the park. Each Park also was an important area for Native Americans, whose legacy has been whitewashed for decades in and around our Public Lands. In many parks, you’ll see information about John Muir, but nothing about the first women explorers in the region, and next to nothing about anyone who wasn’t a white male. This needs to change. Sorry to all the diehard fans of John Muir, but it is time to move away from him and find local heroes and get back to educating the masses about the local tribes who called these areas home for millennia.
*This post was written in one hour for #NatureWritingChallenge. Follow the Hashtag on Twitter to be a part of next week’s writing adventure.