The War on Land

Photo by Doug Schnitzspahn

Most of us have a problem with authority. We don’t like being told what to do. It’s part of being American—we don’t like it when our freedom, especially our freedom when it comes to rambling over our wild lands, gets bogged down by law enforcement or, even worse, bureaucracy. That is a big reason why I usually try to avoid rangers in national parks.

Wait, before I make a total hypocrite of myself, I should explain that I used to work as a wilderness ranger in the Montana—but that job was more about hiking for miles with no one around and surveying how people impacted wild landscapes than it was about enforcing regulations and laws. I also worked for the Forest Service, a far more laid-back organization than the National Park Service, which is entrusted with protecting its resources over everything else (the Forest Service is more interested in trying to please every diverse user group on its land). Park Service rangers? They give out speeding tickets and say no all the time. Right?

Wrong. On a visit to Mesa Verde this spring with my family, I got a better idea of just how good National Park Service rangers can be at their jobs. Much of the park was closed including the famed Cliff Palace ruin (and indeed Mesa Verde is unique as a national park because most of its backcountry is always closed to protect the archaeological resources that are still to be found there), and as we wandered down to the Spruce Tree House (the one ruin we were allowed to visit) a ranger greeted us, seemingly more excited to get to the place than we were.

Once we arrived, he already had a group enthralled, explaining details about how the ancient dwellings in the cliffs had been built (they are not adobe), as well as the spiritual significance of the ladder down to the underground room, the kiva that the ancient Puebloans equated to humanity’s entrance into this world. His enthusiasm and knowledge were a treat, truly adding to our experience of the place. And, I thought, not only is he having fun, and teaching, he’s also making everyone here want to support our parks and ensure treasures like these nearly 1,000-year-old ruins remain for future generations.

That’s important right now, because our public lands have never been more threatened. As we celebrate 100 years of our National Park Service this August, we are also seeing Congress pass a law allowing for the venal sell-off of our public lands to the highest bidders in industry and the super-rich. Eighteen state legislatures, including Utah, Montana, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming and Wisconsin, are considering or have passed bills to take over federal land, with the intent of upping energy extraction and selling off that land to pay the bill of managing it (states such as Alabama are in the process of closing state parks right now because they cannot afford to take care of them). While those bills do not necessarily include national parks, the system is not safe from other threats, including a proposed tram to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

None of this would have settled well with Teddy Roosevelt, who famously said of the Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” It was Roosevelt, too, who championed the idea of national parks and first protected the Grand Canyon through the Antiquities Act in 1906. Currently, conservationists are working to use that same Antiquities Act to create more national monuments, including a Greater Canyonlands National Monument surrounding Canyonlands National Park in Utah, in order to keep our lands out of the hands of sale-happy legislators.

It does not have to be this way. Those of us who love our lands and our parks must speak and act to protect them. If nothing else, simply visit them and meet rangers like ours in Mesa Verde and realize that authority here may not be as bad as it seems. If we allow our public lands to be sold for private profit, it will be the biggest disaster of our generation.

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