I didn’t grow up around public lands. East-central Wisconsin had dairy farms with corn and alfalfa fields. Going to the woods—there aren’t any national forests in that part of the state—meant asking permission to access private land. And vistas were views where you could identify the church steeple in the nearest town.
I wasn’t ignorant of the notion of public lands. Television and magazines had seared images of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon into the national consciousness. And the Wisconsin Northwoods, about a three-hour drive from my home, had the Nicolet and Chequameqon National Forests. But it wasn’t long into my first trip west that I realized that neither photographs nor second-growth pine forest had prepared me for the incredible splendor of this country’s public landscapes. As beautiful as Wisconsin can be, especially at the peak of autumn colors, nothing there compares to the majesty of the Tetons or the Middle Fork of the Salmon or Chaco Canyon.
A taste was all it took. I started backpacking, poring over USGS quads for trails that would take me to remote wilderness locations I naively imagined few had seen before. There wasn’t any tortured need to escape modern life, but it pleased me to strip away the conveniences and distractions and settle into a rhythm with the natural world after a few days on the trail. I was grateful this country had had the foresight and public will to permanently shield significant expanses of public lands from the constant demands for commerce.
I can’t wait to revisit some of these places and experiences when my son and daughter are old enough to hoist a backpack. But having young kids has also raised my appreciation for front country public lands. Campgrounds, recreation areas, and historical and cultural sites have been the primary setting for family vacations and weekends, with countless joys and new experiences.
Witnessing the growth in my kids has been even more rewarding. From our public land trips, my kids have developed empathy and respect for other species. My son has learned the benefits and responsibilities of sharing. He’s come to understand that sharing means more than letting his little sister play with his Legos, that sharing opens a world of experiences we and everyone else otherwise wouldn’t be able to have.
A couple summers ago, my family spent a week at a campground on the Flathead National Forest in western Montana. My dad drove out from Wisconsin to join us. It was the first extended camping trip for my daughter, then eight months old. My son, four, was already an old pro at camping, but he experienced several other firsts on this trip. He took great pride, and a little instruction from his grandpa, in cooking his own food for the first time, using a stick over an open fire. He reeled in—”caught” is the way he describes it—his first fish, a momentous occasion in a young boy’s life. His mom and I, however, were far more gratified with his reaction once the fish was in the net: he wanted to make sure it was released quickly and safely. We hadn’t anticipated how his focus would shift so quickly from his own excitement to the health of the fish. Seeing his compassion override his excitement lifted us with hope.
My son does not quite grasp how so many of the places we visit came to be public lands, open to everyone—we haven’t had the European-conquest-of-the-hemisphere discussion yet. But I have tried to instill in him the conviction that everyone in this country has the right, and should be given equal opportunity, to experience our forests, rivers, and mountains. He certainly appreciates that his life wouldn’t be as good if his outdoor meanderings were limited to the backyard because there weren’t public lands to visit. He knows it’s only because of sharing that he’s able to hang out with his friends around a campfire in the woods every spring as soon as the snow melts off. He knows our family can stuff huckleberries in our mouths at Boardman Lake and watch spy-hopping orcas from Iceberg Point only because we have entered into a promise to share with everyone else. He’s aware these places and experiences would almost certainly be on the other side of locked gates if it weren’t for sharing. He’s even expressed thanks that someone a long time ago set up this great system.
My son is beginning to understand that the way we share public land is different from the way we share most tangible things. I’ve explained that in the past our country treated public land like dessert, giving away parcels to people to keep as their own. He prefers the present method of sharing, in which no one gets a piece for himself but everyone gets to taste all of it. And he’s starting to grasp that this whole arrangement depends on personal responsibility. That it requires everyone else to leave their favorite places just as they found them, and that our family cannot ask this of others if we don’t practice it ourselves.
It’s demoralizing that the benefits of sharing and the importance of responsibility are plain to a six-year-old, but are lost on the president, the Interior Secretary, and much of Congress. The current attempts by many in power to seize ownership of our public lands—or, short of that, to extract maximum profit, regardless of the consequences—are shameful. For now, it’s up to the rest of us to fight back against the greedy and shortsighted, at least until a wiser generation leads us out of this mess. Hopefully it’s as soon as the next one.