I owned every bit of land I could see as I ate lunch. Well, to be honest, I only partially owned it. Because it belonged to me and every other citizen in our wonderful United States. Plus every citizen yet to be born. This was because I was standing on public land – a great idea that took root in the 19th century. The history is complex, bloody and at some level unfair to indigenous peoples, but as it stands today, this is the hand we have been dealt and so, rather than scratch open old wounds, I prefer to acknowledge that the history wasn’t perfect and then look ahead. (Some of that was covered here)
Public land management has had a bit of a checkered past, especially out west. Sage Brush Rebellion, the Malheur standoff and many other clashes have bubbled up over the decades. Federal management of lands isn’t perfect (what is with the feds involved?!). Let’s face it, nothing is perfect for everybody all the time.
But…and this is a big one… for the average citizen, public land is fantastic if you hunt or fish.
As a hunter and angler, I have reaped the rewards of federally managed public lands, along with state lands and lands under conservation easements, all holding fish and wildlife managed by the state, east into Maine and as far west as Montana, with many states in between. I have chased elk in CO, mule deer in WY, caught cutthroat in MT, brown trout in SD, pursued moose in VT and whitetails in ME, among many other states and opportunities. These lands support a bunch of my adventures, thanks to the long vision of people who have come before us.
So why bring this up now?
One of my fears is the loss of places to track big old whitetail bucks across miles of wild country. I hate no trespassing and posted signs, yet as a landowner myself, I respect the right of the landowner to do that very thing and limit access to their land. A chill runs down my spine as I think about the continual development of rural areas that I have witnessed, slowly eroding access to land and water that I used to hunt and fish. It honestly feels like an attack on my way of life. New England is losing 65 acres of forest to development each day and the acreage being conserved annually is also down, falling more than six-fold since the early 2000s, from 333,000 acres a year to about 50,000 acres a year since 2010.
Then I think about my nephews – will they have a place to go 40 years from now? I watch the timber industry struggle and realize how lucky we are to have miles of country to roam, but I also know it might not be forever. I dream of sheep high in mountains that I might never get to, but knowing they are there, and the mountains, too, keeps the spark alive, makes the dream possible. I want the kid from New Jersey (or ME, RI, MA, VT, or NH…ok, every state) who dreams of sneaking after a crafty Maine buck to have a spark, too. That is how our way of life persists.
How do we save it?
There are going to be a bunch of ways. In the coming months, I hope to cover a bunch of them here, from conservation easements to state lands to access programs. Right now, I want to mention public land expansion as a broad category that includes federally managed lands. Adding federally managed lands to our states can be a tough pill to swallow for taxpayers, and fiscally, it might seem wide of the mark. To start with, the programs I am aware of only target willing sellers, so these projects aren’t getting rammed down anyone’s throat. Financially, there are earmarked funds, programs that have set money aside for these sorts of projects for decades. Your tax dollars, actually benefitting you and generations of your family. Shooters, hunters and anglers have contributed extra excise taxes since the 1930’s for programs that we can, and do, benefit from. Oil and gas companies pay into a fund as well, especially with offshore leases, known as the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Historically, money in this fund has contributed to a project in every county in the country. We can tap into that, too, if we can get our elected officials to fully fund it (more on that in a second).
Close to my house, the Nulhegan Basin Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge manages more than 25,000 acres of land that I hunt on. This public land protects all sorts of critical habitat, manages chunks of land for woodcock and grouse, I hike a couple of mountains there every summer, VAST has trails for snowmobilers; and, if I am lucky enough to draw a tag, I might moose hunt there this fall. In addition to the positive ecological and recreational impacts of the National Wildlife Refuge System, there are economic advantages. For every $1 appropriated to the Refuge System, an average of $4.87 is returned to the local economy. On average, the National Wildlife Refuge System has 46.5 million visitors a year, provides $2.4 billion in economic output and provides $342.9 million in tax revenue. This little division, tucked off the beaten path into a corner of VT, gets 50,000+ visitors per year. Your great grandchildren, and their great grandchildren, will be able to hunt there. Pretty good stuff!
What can we do?
In the coming weeks, months, and years, there are going to be opportunities to expand publicly managed land. I think we big woods hunters should thoughtfully support those efforts. I urge you to join a conservation organization that thinks about big woods hunting (I support BHA, but just send a few dollars somewhere!). We need to strongly advocate for traditional uses like hunting and fishing when these purchases come up. We need to write our elected officials when these opportunities present themselves, because saving access to big chunks of ground will help save our rural way of life and, at the very least, pushes our tax dollars into things we care about. At the federal level, right now, we need to get Congress to fully fund LWCF (write in to your federal elected officials about this here).
Our way of life needs to be fought for. Part of that fight is saving places where we get to hunt and fish. If you are interested in joining the fight, I urge you to jump in, with your time and/or money.
Support the expansion of public lands; it is an investment that neither you nor your great grandchildren will regret.