RECREATION, PUBLIC LANDS, AND FREEDOM

Originally published in Environmental Thoughts

I am a skier, climber, hiker, and wonderer of the outdoors; public lands are part of my soul.

Land protected by federal designation is being stripped of protection in an unprecedented series of actions by President Trump and the Republican held Senate. The past four days have seen massive degradation for two National Monuments in the Southwest and the nation’s largest National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

The 17th century philosopher John Locke said that a person can come to own land by mixing the land’s potential with their own labor. Recreation in the outdoors can certainly be hard work swimming in the potential of nature, but I think Locke had it backwards: by mixing our labor with the land, we give part of ourselves to it.

I drove north on a sunny day as the temperature outside dropped to 15 below zero. This time of year at 63 degrees north latitude the sun hangs above the horizon for less than 5 hours. Joe and I skinned around an area near the Chulitna River in hopes of finding some ice to climb in the waning afternoon light. The waterfall was still water (not much to climb yet), but the ski broke up our drive from Anchorage. We arrived at our destination in the dark.

This cabin sits on the edge of Denali National Park with a world of mountains outside the door. The energy of snowshoe hare tracks, moose wondering by, the old howl of a distant wolf, and an immense amount of open space feels comforting. A few hours from the bustle of Alaska’s largest city, we feel remote. I climbed up into the rickety old cash and grabbed the sled that I used on Denali in 2015 and re-commissioned it to haul our gear up 200-yards of unplowed driveway.

The contents of the cabin and the cabin itself are from a time when electricity didn’t exist in these parts. Oil lamps and the wood stove provide our light and heat; we ate spruce grouse for dinner and drank whiskey stashed early in the fall-fodder for discussions of the past. How long ago was it when we had plenty of space in the American West? Plenty of bison in the plains? Bears in the golden bear state? The conservation legacy in our country is marred with both good and bad, but has set aside places like Denali as public commons - something many of us care very deeply about. Our weekend was spent climbing and skiing - we were cold, the conditions for skiing were horrible, it was absolutely wonderful.

I returned to Anchorage to find out the President Trump has begun to tighten the noose on protected public lands. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments have been reduced in size by nearly 2 million acres in an unprecedented unilateral move by Trump. The republican backed tax overhaul passed the senate with Trump support for a provision that will open the coastal plain inside of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling.

The loss of these public lands may bring profits to some, jobs, and resources for our economy (each involves possible oil, gas, and mineral extraction). I could write something here about how many jobs recreation supports, or how the outdoor industry is booming, but I really do not think that is the point. Public lands protect a final vestige of freedom in the natural world.

We skied up to an overlook east of the Park before driving back south, the sun setting on the mountains of the Alaska Range – I wonder what would happen if oil is ever found there?

If you are a skier, hiker, climber, bird watcher, hunter, fisherman, kite enthusiast, berry picker, fan of David Attenborough films, or otherwise someone who enjoys the outdoors, consider this time an opportunity for our community to stand up for the places we love. When we are immersed in the wild, freedom is not just a catch phrase but a reality - skiing on a caribou trail, avoiding a grizzly bear across the river, watching mountains roll as far as the eye can see. This freedom is worth protecting.

Edward Abbey said, "It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it." Abbey's call goes both ways: if you enjoy the outdoors, please do not forget to fight for it.

Public lands support not just our hobbies, but an outlook on life. If those lands are for sale, so too is the liberty, joy, beauty, and balance we find there.