Boundless Riches Beyond Compare: A Requiem for Our American Public Lands

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David Lloyd is a husband, father, 7th grade science teacher and bouldering developer. He authored Bouldering in the Wind River Range, the most current guide to the Lander area. He is currently working on a new bouldering guidebook for the Rock Shop, also in Wyoming, where he and his family live. This is his first guest post for Thundercling.

Occasionally someone throws away the winning lottery ticket without ever checking the numbers. Never even knowing what they’ve lost.  Like a crumpled and forgotten lotto slip, much of the American public might allow their riches to be “disposed of” without ever realizing their birthright.  Without ever cashing in on the sweepstakes. If they only knew…

Climbers are already aware of our public lands.  That they extend beyond the National Parks into National Forests and BLM administered lands.  That National Forests and BLM lands suit the climbing lifestyle even better than National Parks because they are less crowded, you can usually camp for free, and also bring your dog.  That all American citizens are co-owners of 640 million acres of land that they’re free to explore, camp on, or climb upon.  That there are stretches of bucolic vastness in the western states where private property isn’t even a concern, because there isn’t any for miles and miles.

Yes, you already know about your public lands, but many Americans don’t.  I didn’t when I grew up in Iowa.  I was clueless.  I didn’t even know that any immeasurable public lands existed, because in Iowa almost all land is private.  Iowans inspired by outdoor pursuits buy forested pieces of land referred to as “camps” and drive for hours to get to them in order to pursue their hobbies.  Those who can’t afford a camp must ask for permission to hunt, camp, or hike on someone else’s land, with no guarantee of admission.  The lack of public lands is just accepted as the way things have always been.

I’d never even heard of federal public lands while growing up.  I didn’t know all the reasons that outdoors people “out west” had it so much better than we did back in Iowa.  But I’d seen images of people hiking and climbing in the Rocky Mountains in a photo book at the public library.  I’d spent hours watching “Wild America” on PBS and I knew that I wanted to spend time in the mountains.  I’d also begun dabbling in rock climbing after being introduced to sport rappelling while I was an exchange student in Australia.  It was time to discover what the mountains – and rock climbing – were all about.

It was worth paying out-of-state tuition to attend university at Colorado State in Ft. Collins. That first day I crammed my stuff in the corners of my dorm room and jumped on my bike, breathlessly pedaling towards the mountains.  After biking for miles, all the mountain lands I could reach were posted with “No Trespassing” signs.  Disappointed that I couldn’t access the mountains on my bike, I almost transferred back to a college out east.  Luckily, I was too lazy to complete the application and stayed for another semester.  Spring Break arrived, and my friend Dan invited me to see the Canyonlands in his home state of Utah.  Not long after crossing the state line, we drove off the highway onto a two track for less than a mile. We pulled to a stop and exploded out of the cramped car, Dan immediately assembling the poles of his tent.  “Wait, aren’t we trespassing here?” I asked.

“In Utah you can camp anywhere that isn’t posted with signs,” he said.

I didn’t know if that was true, but with so much of eastern Utah designated as public land, I now reckon it must be pretty much true.  It was my introduction to BLM lands.  During my sophomore year at CSU my parents gave me a used blue Mercury Topaz, and that changed everything.  I used it to get to rock climbing destinations such as Shelf Road and the South Platte, areas too far from Ft. Collins for day trips.  I spent my weekend evenings camping on the plentiful public lands, not far from the limestone and granite I played on by day.

Like nearly every climber and hiker and camper before me, I started taking public lands camping for granted.  Late one night my friend Andy and I pulled up to the locked gate at Hueco Tanks State Park, in west Texas.  Bouldering as a pursuit in itself was exploding in popularity in the late nineties, and Hueco Tanks was the burgeoning epicenter.  The place offered both amazing climbing and the chance to climb with and watch the best boulderers from around the world.  We had camping reservations in the park but we were too late to get in.  I suggested we go back to Pete’s Store and camp with the other boulderers in his parking lot.  Pete was a Mexican man who called bouldering a “new religion” and let boulderers camp at his store parking lot, just a mile from Hueco Tanks, for a small fee.  Andy said, “Then we’d have to pay two dollars.  Let’s just camp in the desert.”  He had a point. We drove down a two-track off a nearby gravel road.  I didn’t realize that 90% of the land in Texas is private.

It was a nice night and we didn’t bother setting up our tents.  We just lay our foam pads by the side of the car and slid into our sleeping bags.  I was exhausted from making the 11 hour drive from Ft. Collins in a single push, it was after midnight, and I immediately fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Beep, Beep!  Beep, Beep! I sat bolt upright as pickup truck headlights barreled towards me.  I’d been awoken so immediately that I didn’t even know where I was.  Based on all the evidence before me I was sitting smack-dab in the middle of a highway, constrained by a sleeping bag, and about to be flattened.  The loudest, highest and most frantic screaming of my life erupted from my contorted face.  The truck slowed down and veered to the side and I put a lid on the bawling, but my heart continued pounding at a rate only matched by the drummer of the Descendants.  A lady rolled down her window and said, “This is my land. You climbers can’t keep camping here.  I’m calling the cops, so you’d better leave.  You’re lucky the coyotes didn’t attack you out here.”  As a wildlife biology major, I had to tamp down the urge to educate her on the extremely low incidence of coyote attacks.  The timing just didn’t feel right.  We threw our bags and pads in my car, drove to Pete’s, and paid our two bucks in the morning.  We didn’t get charged for trespassing, but it felt like my screaming panic took years off my life.  I’ve been careful to check land ownership in advance ever since.

Over a couple decades my knowledge of, appreciation for, and skills of navigating public lands have grown.  Using BLM or National Forest Maps in conjunction with Google Earth I now find legal, free, and secluded camping sites near almost any climbing area in the western U.S.  I find and follow legal access corridors to public boulder fields that appear to be blocked by private ranch land.  I spend days at amazing bouldering areas seldom visited by anyone and hit them when the weather is perfect by studying forecast graphics on www.weather.gov.  We’re entering a golden age when technology allows dedicated outdoor pilgrims to fully explore, migrate comfortably through, and even work from our public lands.  So it’s more important to protect them – and keep them public – than it’s ever been.  Their greater potential is coming into view.

The author getting some air in his home state.

Public lands have come to dominate my life, my hopes, and my dreams.  I have many reasons that I’m unendingly attached to them.  Fond memories, first ascents, future plans, and daughters I’d like to leave them to.  But it isn’t just the preservation of past achievements, or ambitions to keep exploring new bouldering in the future, that inspires me to pen this post and deplete my social media capital on almost daily updates about public lands.  What makes me so passionate about public lands is that they lead me to an experience of something sacred.  An experience that can’t be put into words. Indeed, words can only point towards something deeper, an esoteric feeling of attachment and gravity.

On a four day trip to the desert with my family, we spent our days bouldering and exploring, hearing nothing except the occasional calls of coyotes, owls, and ravens.  We hadn’t seen or heard another person since we’d arrived.  On the third day we’d talked about being aware of the ringing of our ears and that we’d all noticed a fundamental hum that seemed to underlay everything.  That’s how quiet it was. That night I woke up and crawled out of the tent, because you need to do that sometimes.  It was an unusually warm night.   I lingered, the Milky Way stoic and bright above me.  The surrounding hills and mountains visible in the starlight, a sandstone and juniper-twisted silhouette framing the star-dusted sky.  I realized I was in the situation of the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s eponymous novel.  Standing on the side of a planet, stuck to it by the mysterious force of gravity while we tumble through the universe.  I felt connected to the universe that gave rise to me, and in that moment my consciousness was giving rise to the Milky Way.  I was all that I was aware of and I was an infinite, perfect, natural, and knowing space full of wonders.  I didn’t want it to end.  Eventually it did.  I yawned and shivered for the chill and finally crawled back into the tent.

I remember that night vividly, and the realizations I had.  That the universe doesn’t care about our laws and the Earth (even small plots of it) can’t really be owned by anyone.  I don’t mean that land shouldn’t be owned by anyone, but that at the fundamental level it simply can’t be.  Ownership is an idea that most of us share, one that helps control what humans do on the land, to the land.  Yet, when confronted with the timeless and boundless nature of our true predicament – land and life forms that will exist for billions of years after each of us has returned to dust – all human thought, culture, and concerns appear ephemeral and insignificant in comparison.   I realized that most Americans (including myself) spend the majority of their lives feeling disconnected from nature. Some never feel a deep connection at all.  It took extended periods in the outdoors surrounded by family and friends who I was comfortable with, and no one around who I was uncomfortable with, for me to relax enough, and be sensitive enough, to truly sense my connection to it all.  To have everything, and be happy to let it be, is a richness beyond compare.

If our government representatives could feel that, the bounty of an experience dependent on vastness, silence, loneliness, and freedom, they’d be protective of our public lands.  But that’s an unrealistic wish, a Catch-22.  Because people who’ve developed the deep connection I’m talking about wouldn’t consider leaving their beloved public lands for a life in politics.  Climbers and campers and hikers and fishermen want to continue living healthy and inspired lifestyles, seeking well-being in the outdoors.  I know that’s what I want to do.  That’s probably what you want, too.  Because the lives we create through our pursuits on public lands are healthier, happier, more enlightened, and richer than the lives of politicians. It’s so obvious that politicians would benefit from more time outdoors, both physically and mentally, that anything I could say at this point would be like adding more spines to a cactus.

Yes, you and I have already won a lottery, we embrace our birthright, and we are spending our riches.  Earning fruitful returns from our public lands, maintaining our high interest rate. It’s hard to imagine ever going back to that old way of life, our lives before we became acquainted with our public lands, the poverty we’d feel in a future without them.  So what can we do?

Here’s the plan. We take every opportunity to show our friends and neighbors what they have to lose.  We keep enjoying our riches, and invite them on our trips to public lands whenever possible.  When we can’t take them along, we show them what’s theirs through photos, film, and social media. We guarantee that they are fully aware that these places belong to them.  That these places are giving them clean water, air, wildlife, and an account of outdoor experiences that they can spend whenever they choose.  They’re winners, too.  The more they know that, the more they’ll fight to keep what is theirs.   And by doing that, they’ll also help protect what is ours. You know how much is at stake here!  Does your family know?  Do your friends know?  Do your fellow Americans know?

Let’s spread the word.

 

Editor’s Note

As the Age of Trumpism lurches into its first year, lodged uncomfortably in the American psyche, environmental policy and protectionism seem prime targets for razing. President Obama’s legacy of environmental and climate change protocol is swiftly being dismantled by a cadre of avaricious business men elevated to the highest levels of American office.

I don’t need to tell you this. David did a great job illustrating the vibe of this dangerous time for our public lands and beloved open spaces. But, let’s take a quick tour.

First, what is already gone. According to Business Insider, The Stream Protection Rule, a law created under Obama, sought to require mining companies “to study the health of local streams before and after mining activities, and then restore them to their original condition. Mining companies objected to the rule as too expensive.” Gone.

Next up, according to Reuters, “New U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke…issued an order overturning an Obama administration ban on the controversial use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle used on federal lands and waters.” This ban was meant to protect against the lead poisoning of our wildlife and fish stock. Zinke mounted a horse and rode it to work that first day. And then he repealed a ban meant to protect American fauna. Gone.

That’s but a sampling. In an executive order meant to erase Obama’s environmental legacy, Trump put his initials on the future erasure of the Clean Power Plan. He approved continued development of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier and man who has sued the EPA 13 times, was confirmed (by some Democrats, as well) as administrator of that very agency. Sonny Perdue, Trump’s choice for Agriculture Secretary, is an avid climate change denier and once, “in the midst of an epic drought, Perdue implored residents to pray for rain, holding a prayer vigil outside of the Georgia state Capitol.” Trump himself called climate change a hoax created by China.

We’ve proven what we can do when we raise our voices. As climbers and hikers and boaters and skiers, we control the fate of a $646 billion dollar outdoor industry, a juggernaut impacting millions of jobs. Let’s push them. Let’s push our political leaders. Let’s push ourselves.

Let’s get to fucking work.

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