What public lands give us

Today is National Public Lands Day, so here are a few thoughts on the value of public lands. But first, a short story to set the stage.

“You’re going too fast!”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re going too fast and missing out on all the scenery. You should slow down.”

“I…umm…have a nice day.”

That was a real exchange between myself and a tourist a few years ago on a trail. A few hours into a daylong out-and-back I’d jogged up the trail behind her and asked to pass. As I did, she let me know just how she felt about my penchant for running through the wilderness. I was so caught off guard I had no ready answer, but days later (precisely when I think of my best comebacks) I realized what I should have said was, “I prefer seeing the wilderness this way, and besides, I get to see it all twice!”

I’ve heard this criticism quite a few times over the years, worded in various ways but all saying that trail runners would get a more full experience of the wilderness if we would slow down more, take in the sights, stop for longer breaks, etc.

To me, moving quickly through the wilderness enhances the whole experience. The physical and mental effort is inextricably linked to how I feel about being out in the mountains, and there is a certain aesthetic appeal to moving lightly and efficiently across the landscape. I feel such a stronger sense of happiness and accomplishment standing on top of a peak after a good honest effort than if I’d gotten to that spot with a leisurely walk or a car.

But I know this viewpoint isn’t for everyone. A good friend of mine is a fairly avid amateur botanist, and takes immense pleasure from knowing each and every plant she passes along the trail. Where I rely on a GPS watch, she notes changes in elevation by which plants are present.

The fun thing is that the outdoors can be so many things for different people. For some folks like me, they can be a medium to explore your physical and mental limits. For my friend, they’re a place to test knowledge. And for others (like that tourist), they’re a chance to disconnect from the rhythms of the day-to-day and find a simpler pace. They can be a challenge, a muse, adventure, solace, or a little bit of all of that wrapped into one.

All I know is that wild spaces mean a helluva lot to millions of people. And more often than not, these wild spaces are public lands; city parks, BLM land, state parks, national parks or monuments, wilderness areas, and other places managed by public agencies but enjoyed — and owned — by all Americans. In the past couple of years the future of our public lands has been in contention more than ever before, most often in the form of legislation seeking to transfer land ownership from the federal government to the states. And if/when states run into budget deficits, these lands become attractive opportunities to sell off to the highest bidder — historically, the extractive industries such as mining or oil & gas development. The scariest thing about this is, there is no going back. Once these lands have been developed they can never be the same. No amount of cleanup or remediation can return the land to what it was before the mine went in or after the roads have been built to haul the fracking equipment.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that tourist and I had a lot more in common than we knew. Though we had different ways of enjoying the landscape we were united in that we each found value in the public land we traveled through. Even though, on some particularly good out-and-backs, I feel a tiny bit superior because I get to see the beauty twice that day.


More Thoughts / Resources

  • Mike Foote wrote an informative article in Trailrunning Magazine about public lands:

No Free Lunch: Trail Running and the Public-Lands Debate

  • Patagonia thinks this issue so important they dedicated their first-ever television ad to outlining why they support public lands:



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