The History, Romance and Future of Public Land

I remember my last duck hunt with grandpa before he died. He was a fisherman mostly – duck hunting wasn’t his true passion. Nevertheless, he knew I wanted to try knocking a few birds out of the sky, so he loaded me into his ’88 Bonneville van and we bumped along the banks of the Boise River near Star, Idaho, long before it was overgrown with subdivisions, paved roads and families crammed into SUVs on their way to soccer practice.

Everything about that trip had a tinge of antiquity. Our inflatable rubber decoys belonged to my great grandpa. I used my grandpa’s shotgun and he was armed with his dad’s Remington Model 870. Even our duck calls were from generations before, although grandpa didn’t quite know how to use them. Flocks of mallards flew in through the snow all afternoon. We didn’t hit any but spending that precious time with him was invaluable.  

Without acreage set aside by our government for public use, I’m not sure grandpa and I would have had the chance to make this memory. Now, more than ever, the preservation of public land means preservation of irreplaceable experiences to be had by future generations.

A 30,000 ft. overview of public land.

Generally speaking, the term public land refers to the more than 640 million acres of U.S. land set aside by state and federal governments for public, multipurpose use. No one owns this land. It’s simply available for all of us to enjoy and managed by government entities including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

Chances are you’ve stepped foot on public land many times over the course of your life, especially if you’re lucky enough to livehere in Idaho. I won’t get into the minutia of land designations, but you’re most likely to encounter public lands in the form of parks, national forests, conservation land, monuments, wilderness areas, recreation areas and scenic rivers.  

Are public lands here for good?

Idaho has the most public land per square mile in the nation. That may make you think we’ll always have an abundance offorests, rivers and wilderness areas at our disposal, but that’s not the case. These lands are increasingly at risk of purchase, pollution and population.

Let’s start with an example that’s close to home. In 2016, the Texas-based Wilks brothers purchased tens of thousands of acres of land across multiple Idaho counties, including popular areas around McCall. This land intermingled with – and in some cases included – public land. As a result, many popular camping spots and hunting and recreation trails and roads are no longer publicly accessible. While the brothers have every right to manage their property as they see fit, their actions have a profound impact on a culture and history centered around a love for Idaho’s outdoors and a connection to untouched wilderness throughout the state. Imagine camping in the same spot for decades and taking your youngest up to experience it for the first time, only to discover that place filled with stump carvings and memories is inaccessible.

The inability to access areas previously categorized as public land is an obvious hurdle to preserving this sacred acreage, but even the lands still accessible to the public are in danger.

According to the Idaho Department of Labor, Boise’s population grew by more than 20,000 in 2018 alone. I’ve got news for you: those people aren’t moving here for the craft beer, although we do have a lot of that. Many of them have experienced our crystal lakes, serene mountains and expansive meadows, and they want to be closer to those natural wonders. I can’t say I blame them. 

Unfortunately, with an increase in population comes an increase in visitors who aren’t well-versed in the etiquette of public land use. I’ve seen them zipping around with RZRs where they shouldn’t be, scaring the elk that I just hiked up to 10,000 feet to get to. I watch them leave trash in campsites and misuse or widen trails. Many of them are in search of the perfect photo for Instagram with little regard for the consequences their actions have on the road systems, animals, land, ecosystem and folks like you and me who want to enjoy those lands.

More often than not, people who didn’t grow up around public land don’t immediately see its fragility. Instead, they see a real-life Bob Ross painting and it’s like nothing they’ve ever encountered before. I’ll be the first to admit, that first sight of the backcountry is awe-inspiring, but that land isn’t just there for our consumption and enjoyment. We must collectively care for those lands, otherwise they’ll be destroyed, along with the wildlife that call that land home.

How can we preserve public land?

We can sit around and be worried all we want, but preserving public land requires action. It’s easy to shake our fingers at the government and tell them to stop selling off the land to turn a profit, or to stop allowing for the sale of unlimited tags on various game animals which ultimately encourages people to hunt for the sake of a photo rather than for the sake of the hunt, in honor of the animal. Those things take legislation and a lot of time and patience.

There are things we can do right now, though. Most importantly, we must take time to understand the history of our public lands, where they came from and why they’re still here. Since the establishment of Yosemite Valley in 1864 and Yellowstone becoming the first national park in 1872, a preservation and conservation movement has ebbed and flowed throughout our country. Without knowing the history of these lands, we can’t effectively manage the present and future. We can’t fully appreciate their importance and the impact they have on the experience of generations to come.

Aside from stopping and reading informational signs along your adventures, I invite you to take the time to research and understand the rules of the public land you’re using. Those rules vary depending on the designation of the land. Just because you can use an ATV in one area doesn’t mean you can do so inanother, and it’s your responsibility to know what’s what. The BLM, USFS, USFW and NPS websites will help guide you through those regulations.

No matter where you are, leave no trace and tread lightly to respect and protect America’s crown jewels. Whether you hunt, fish, hike, bike, ski, boat or climb, us outdoorsmen have the largest impact on the preservation of the free lands we use to carry out our passions for years to come. 

- Justin 


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