Our Land

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Like the recent occupiers of a wildlife refuge in Oregon, I too am a user of public lands. I don't graze cattle, log trees, hunt ducks, mine minerals, or drive off-road, but I have hiked and camped many times on land owned and managed by the federal government.

All of the activities I mention are legal, but regulated, uses of our public lands and at times, my preferred activity has been disrupted by these other uses. I have been awakened in my tent to the clanging of cowbells, the whine of chain saws or the explosion of rifles. I have coughed up dust raised by jeeps in the backcountry and been forced off ski trails by snowmobiles. I don't like these disruptions, but I understand them.

The long history of federal ownership of public lands dates back to early European settlement of the West. Prior to that time, these lands belonged to American Indians, and before them, to the numerous wildlife species that proliferated in seemingly endless habitats. With European settlement, these massive open spaces were up for grabs. Many exploited this opportunity, running huge numbers of cattle or cutting down vast expanses of forest. Eventually, and for various reasons, many acres of wilderness reverted to the federal government to be managed with the overall public interest in mind.

The debate rages as to what constitutes public interest. Some see livestock grazing as superior to all other uses, and would like this use to be exclusive. I, on the other hand, would prefer our public lands be managed for wildlife and outdoor recreation. Others have different opinions.

We live in a society that however awkwardly operates as a democracy, requiring ALL people be involved in decisions about its affairs. In the case of public lands, our society has determined that a variety of activities should take place. I don't like to see cow patties in a stream from which I draw my drinking water, but know that shared use requires I sometimes deal with it. Without shared use, the alternative might be no trespassing signs. I'd take cow patties any day.


With a Perspective I'm Carol Arnold.

Carol Arnold is an environmental planner. She lives in San Francisco.