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.