Far Northern Exposure

What can we learn from the Nordic countries about how we can better connect to our public lands?


eijo Kurtilla is up every morning to milk the cows before he heads over to his hotel, the Roukanhovi, in Finland’s Rokua National Park. He took over the farm from his parents but just recently began operating the hotel, which is surrounded by a network of rolling hiking, biking and ski trails that interconnect in the forest of evergreen and birch. Kurtilla grew up Nordic skiing on these trails, training for the Finnish Olympic team. He competed at the Games in Salt Lake City and Torino as well as taking four podiums at the World Cup. But these days he’s most content to spend time with his family and oversee his reindeer and cows. He takes us for a tour on the Oulujoki, the river that abuts his farm, in a boat he finally had the time to get working this year. He tells stories about growing up here and shows us the little cabin he built when he was 10. 

Later, we relax in one of Roukanhovi’s saunas. You cannot come to Finland without taking a sauna, which is a social ritual, an aspect of Nordic culture that I learn connects the journey of life (women used to give birth in the sauna, children would come of age discussing big community ideas in the heat, and a corpse would be washed and stored here). At Rokua, we laugh, share stories of biking and skiing, brave a discussion of the American political situation, and break up time in the steam with leaps into a cold lake. During our sauna conversations, and while touring his farm, I am struck by how personally connected Kurtilla is to this landscape.

I’m here to look at how outdoor tourism works across Lapland and the Nordic countries, hoping I can bring some insight back that can help us better manage our public lands. From many travels here over the past decade, I have seen how the Scandinavians have cultivated a deep-rooted respect for their natural landscapes that puts us to shame.

American public lands are truly under attack. OHVs are about to run rampant in Utah’s national parks without a lick of public comment. The rare landscape of Grand Staircase Escalante National monument is set to be forever churned up by mining in areas that had been given supposedly permanent protection. Alaska’s untrammeled Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is slated to be callously drilled for the first time for no real benefit when it comes to oil reserves. Every bad idea that almost of a century of smart protection has toiled to build is being dismantled without democratic process for no better reason than spite.

I can only hope we reverse our course before we lose what gives us our unique character. I hope we can learn from the kind of example I saw in Rokua, where a UN Geopark exists alongside a farm like Kurtilla’s. Maybe we should spend more time discussing these issues in a sauna.

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