We Are Lost Without It.

My younger brothers wore hand-me-downs. As the oldest I usually got new clothes, but a lot of things were handed down to me, like my first hunting and fishing gear. A particular Fenwick FF80 and Remington 760 come to mind. I also inherited a profound passion for the woods, and access to plenty of acres to roam on family farms and homesteads, adjoining public lands, and a liberal post-logging water-access culture.

It wasn’t until I moved to Michigan after college and had to redraw my map from scratch that I started to think about public access — suddenly, I was the public. I grew to love the Huron-Manistee National Forest and its sandy pine forests and honey-gold trout streams, though it’s riddled by parcels of old private and state land with varying levels of river access. 

In 2014 I moved back to Minnesota and have been re-exploring my old hunting and fishing grounds, with public access fresh in my mind. It occurred to me this spring that the Superior National Forest — a name so familiar that I had to rediscover it — is four million acres of open public land. I’d been hunting and fishing within a tiny part of the southwest corner of it my entire life. I bought a paper Forest Service map. It’s four feet by six feet, both sides. It’s like the sun rose from behind a mountain, illuminating an entire kingdom I’d not known was there. That’s one hell of a hand-me-down.  

And that’s just one national forest. There are 153 more of them, and a total of 640 million acres of federal public land in this country, generally open to exploration to anyone with a pair of boots. This is over one fourth of the nation’s land area — and unlimited adventures with a fly rod or a rifle or a canoe or a horse or a bike or a camera, though even if I start tomorrow I’ll never get to do it all. Still, the existing possibility is thrilling.

And the existing possibility of that land being divested to state and local control is frightening. It’s a real risk, not a “back to the states” issue, and not a “Western” issue. Watch this short film and read more here and here and here and here.  Short story: certain political powers want to transfer this land to state ownership, and states will over time likely sell the land to private interests who will fence or log or mine or drill or otherwise restrict or eliminate its public use.

Obviously, we anglers and hunters and wilderness lovers don’t want to see this. We want these 640 million acres to remain held in public trust so that we can fish and hunt and hike and camp and so our kids and grandkids can do those things too. It’s a simple message, and, to me and other members of this sportsperson’s choir, it’s profound preaching. Time spent out there defines and nourishes us. We are lost without it.

It’s a powerful message, but it’s narrow. What if there aren’t enough of us? If we stake our argument on sportmen’s and women’s votes or dollars we’ll very likely come up short. We will always be dwarfed by the power and momentum of the big extractive industries. And plenty of Americans never set foot on public land beyond city parks, and don’t hunt or fish or care that we do.

It’s easy to say that we need to get more people into the outdoors, make them invested, win them over one at a time. Certainly can’t hurt. But I don’t think we have time for that. It’s also tempting to make the argument that much of this land is worth protecting even if none of us ever use it, especially the roadless tracts, the wilderness areas, the wild and scenic rivers. But miners and loggers aren’t very sympathetic to that perspective.

So we should consider what public use can mean. Recreation, yes, but also study and protection and managed use of landscapes and ecosystems, biodiversity, wilderness, responsible timber and mineral extraction, and other as-yet-unknown uses. As it stands, there’s something there for everyone.

And even aside from public use, that land is an investment, like a savings bond that our grandparents bought us before we were born. We, the people, quite literally own it, it’s incalculably valuable, and while we hold it, we can use it. Let’s not cash it in.

 

How to Buy a Fly Rod

Here we have a pair of Minnesota fly anglers on a week-long June dry-fly trip across northern Michigan. Weather-beaten and unbathed, in damp waders and muddy boots, they’ve stopped at Gates Au Sable Lodge mid-afternoon for a cheeseburger and some flies. As we join them they are on the grass in front of the shop. One of them is casting a well-worn but beautiful rod, while the other holds the sock and tube.

TOM:  Geez, I like it. What do you think?

ADAM:  It’d be the nicest rod I own.

TOM:  Me too. But you’re the one shopping. Wow, that does feel nice.

ADAM:  No I’m not. I don’t need a new four weight.

TOM:  Here, give it another cast or two. How often do you get to test-drive a used Thomas & Thomas? Check out the hand-painted logo.

ADAM:  I guess it would make a good souvenir. To go along with my signed book.

TOM:  Now you’re talking. And it would be perfect for those Southeast Minnesota streams.

ADAM:  Also true. Are you seeing these loops?

TOM:  It makes us look like good casters.  You know, we’re only a few minutes from the Holy Waters. You could buy it and we could go christen it right now, before we have to post up for the night.

ADAM:  Can’t argue with that.

I’ve moved home.

The grey morning after the last day of deer season, 2009, that I left Duluth for lower Michigan was a lifetime ago, by my reckoning, the four and a half actual years overfilled with new jobs, new friends, my marriage and several others, and four addresses. But finally, this spring my wife and I moved home.

more “I’ve moved home.”

Committed

We drove west toward the setting sun, which was disappearing into a heavy cloud bank. The put-in was only a few minutes’ ride from our campsite, but we spent it mostly in silence.

“I’m kind of nervous,” I said at last.

more “Committed”