I felt this sentiment many times during my two decades as a Pennsylvanian.
And it recurred earlier this decade while holding down a homestead in Vermont. (Actually, it was a condo).
I first experienced this feeling as a youthful hiker, camper and angler in New Mexico. Then the Gregory family moved to Idaho, which is blessed to have big, wide-ranging public lands.
And then came the three years that then-Air Force Capt. Alan Gregory spent in far upstate New York State and took hike after hike in the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, more than half of which is now owned by New Yorkers.
I write about the gift that such public land offers Americans. It’s a legacy for our children and grandchildren.
To find and experience it, just take a walk into and across a wild place; a place that Nature still holds onto despite all that the boosters of using up “natural resources” have done to break it, pave it, pollute it, and build on it.
Walking into the woods on public land brings with it the means of experiencing the kind of solitude and grace and sense of belonging that only a natural landscape can offer.
For me in Pennsylvania, there were hikes along Nescopeck Creek in what became Nescopeck State Park. And the three-mile loop hike on public land atop the high ground overlooking the Lehigh River and Jim Thorpe across the valley below.
The hike in Hickory Run State Park to a cliff overlooking that river was also special. Exploring nature there once yielded the discovery of a nest in progress of Cedar Waxwings.
Across the country, though, opportunities nowadays to see and feel the land as it was shaped by Wild Nature are increasingly hard to come by. All Americans – once the booster hat of “development” is tossed aside – know this.
That thought was amplified many times for me while living in Pennsylvania. In one instance (there were many case-studies), a butterfly census took me to the remnants of a Pocono cranberry bog, fragmented and degraded when subdivided into housing lots. The ecological heart of that natural place was forsaken to make way for a cluster of trophy homes and McMansions.
(I forget the name of the development, but it’s not far from Long Pond).
These thoughts came rushing back as I stood on public land (our public land!) in southeastern Oregon earlier this June.
Conservationist and friend Dave Foreman calls it the Big Outside. You know you have reached the Big Outside when you stand still for a moment and see only Wild Nature – the flora and fauna that Nature put there – for as far as your eyes, binoculars and telephoto lens can see.
My watching post was next to a U.S. Bureau of Land Management sign bearing the words “your public lands.” Less than a yard away was a grand-daddy Big Sagebrush, a characteristic native plant of the Great Basin Desert. Thousands and thousands more dotted the landscape all the way off to the horizon.
And the crowning touch to that viewscape: No sign anywhere of a human activity. Just Wild Nature
Lay people ask this rhetorical question whenever the topic of the public owning natural land comes to the fore: “But what good is it?”
There are a host of “good things” that come with public land: Open space, hunting and fishing, a good quality of life and sense of community, clean water and air, and the chance to reconnect with Wild Nature in this era of growth for the sake of growth and “progress.”
But this notion comes first: Because that land is part of the foundation for all the life – flora and fauna – we share the planet with.
The more natural land held in public ownership, the better for Wild Nature.
And the better for our natural heritage.