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 The Trek: The Journals

•
Team: North
Bob Van Deven
Monday, September 2
Middle Ground
It’s 9:45 AM at Stoddard Creek Campground just inside the Idaho border. This is a developed campground with pit toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, and ground that is mercifully free of cow pies. Beyond the clearing there are hundreds of young aspens but tall Douglas firs surround the tent sites. You can always tell a Douglas fir by the cones strewn about its base--papery, about three inches long, with little mousetails sticking out between the bracts. The cones usually persist for years under the trees since they are seldom eaten by squirrels. Fireweed has gone to seed in the gaps between aspens, the fuzzy, lavender stems looking surreal amid bare white trunks.

Glancing around this place almost anyone could tell it’s public land. Roads meander through it, motorhomes and trailers fill the gravel parking spaces, and a fee station--that ubiquitous gateway to public recreation--has been erected at the entrance. It’s a nice spot--sunlit, green, and quiet, save for the territorial squawking of Clark’s nutcrackers and the quaking of the aspens. Yesterday Michelle even saw a cow moose stroll through with a calf on her way to the leafy banks of the creek. A lot of people think places like these are representative of public lands, that they are simply swatches of the greater public domain and in particular the west. Since this trek is supposed to be about public lands I think it’s important to realize the error of this assumption. Public lands include bucolic forests and parks, yes, but also cattle ranches, oil fields, mines, waterways, reservoirs, and areas managed for timber. In fact most public land has been put to use for one purpose or another according to the mandates of various federal agencies (i.e. the Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Fish and Wildlife Service). If you equate public lands with vast, open stretches unmarred by the hand of industry-in effect, wilderness-then you should be aware that only about 4 percent of public land has been set aside as such.

Land is finite yet provides resources for a bewildering and almost limitless zoo of competing interests. Herein lies the seed of most public lands controversy. Do we harvest old growth timber for building homes or leave it intact as a wildlife refuge? Do we dam a river for hydropower and irrigation, and if so how will this affect salmon populations? Do we bother to reintroduce the masked bobwhite even though its former range has been invaded by African lovegrass? Do we allow snowmobiles in Yellowstone? How about mining underneath Yellowstone? Where do we test our bombs, hide our nuclear waste? Where do we hunt elk? To add an extra layer of complexity, pull out an atlas and look at a map of Idaho or perhaps Nevada. Add together the green blotches of national forest, the manilla swaths of BLM land and the purple areas that denote national parks. Throw in all wildlife refuges, military bases and proving grounds as well. Not much left over, is there? Because western states (with the notable exception of Texas) are largely public land the citizens who live around and sometimes within those areas are likely to favor some kind of local control rather than management on a federal level.

For the past eleven years I’ve lived in Tucson, Arizona and today I find myself halfway between the Canadian border and Salt Lake City. At the beginning of this trip I camped in Glacier National Park, that gem of the northern Rockies, but the night before last I slept on land shorn so clean by cattle that the most visible features on its surface were piles of cow dung. At home I’ll sometimes spend a week backpacking through the rhyolite canyons and ponderosa forests of the Galiuro Wilderness but later this month I’ll tour an oil and gas field in Wyoming. Contrasts are everywhere on the public lands and those who wander too far from the center, while perhaps in the right, are bound to be disappointed. Yet even the center is on the move.

Over 50 years after Aldo Leopold published A Sand County Almanac we still have not embraced a comprehensive land use ethic. Administrations change, taking with them entire echelons of agency personnel. Issues arise and gain prominence, pulling the middle ground first one way then another the way a child drags around a tattered blanket. The latest cycle of forest fires--themselves a product of poor forest management--have spawned some of the most transparent sloganeering since pre-dust bowl farmers declared “rain follows the plough”. In my home state a dispute over critical habitat for a tiny, endangered owl prompted Governor Hull to declare that sacrificing a species would be acceptable if it meant saving jobs.

Not to be outdone by political posturing, the bulk of scientific research exerts its own kind of gravity on the issues. We’ve gone from shooting birds by the millions--the last passenger pigeon died in a zoo in the 1920’s--to declaring our own national symbol endangered; from placing bounties on grizzly bears to placing radio collars on them. It seems the more we learn about the natural world, the more we are encouraged to modify our behavior, yet in so doing we stumble across the flashpoints hidden beneath rural landscapes. It might help if every citizen were a scientist, but most are not and many have become suspicious of scientific conclusions, preferring to rely instead on anecdotal evidence and plain old common sense. Across parts of America we’ve seen an anti-intellectual backlash where land use issues are concerned.

Perhaps the upshot of all this could best be expressed by a quote from H.L. Menken: “For every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it’s wrong.” While the message flowing out of this journey may be simple--visit your public lands, learn about them, get involved--putting it into practice may be another matter. If it helps, imagine the public domain as a crossword puzzle where words like “wilderness” and “fire” overlap; where erasing a four-letter word for timber knocks a letter out of both “owl” and “deer”. It’s easy to get discouraged. Don’t. Remember that some people who cut down trees also like walking in the forest, and some people who sit in redwoods have also passed a few hours on wooden porches. Don’t take either of them too seriously. Find a place and visit it often; find an issue and study it fervently. Find your own center.


for Monday, September 2
North South Both




Biographical
•
Team: North
Bob Van Deven
Bob Van Deven

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List of All Journal Entries
•
Monday, January 6
Bob Van Deven
Sunny Weather
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Sunday, December 1
Bob Van Deven
   >> more...

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Wednesday, October 9
Bob Van Deven
The End of the Journey
   >> more...

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Friday, September 20
Bob Van Deven
A Little News
   >> more...

•
Monday, September 2
Bob Van Deven
Middle Ground
   >> more...

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Wednesday, August 28
Bob Van Deven
Disasters and other fun
   >> more...

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Wednesday, August 21
Bob Van Deven
People
   >> more...

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Saturday, August 17
Bob Van Deven
August 17 or Thereabouts
   >> more...

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Saturday, August 10
Bob Van Deven
AAAAAAHHHHHHHH!
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Thursday, August 1
Bob Van Deven
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