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Public Lands Remind Us that Diversity Is Our Strength

Saturday, September 30th is National Public Lands Day, the nation’s largest volunteer effort for public lands. On that day, visit any public land for free and spend the day giving back to the lands that give us so much, helping pull invasive species, pick up trash, and maintain trails.

It’s the one day of the year when Americans across the country have an opportunity to come together to celebrate our public lands system and the hardworking, dedicated public employees that manage them. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the importance of public lands, especially in the West, and think about what they mean to our country and the conservation movement.

Public Lands Weren’t Always Public

America’s public lands were not always intended to stay public. Our defining public lands’ policy until the early 1900s was to give or sell as much land as possible to private interests.

A large brown bear stands by a river, looking at camera
Grizzy bear, Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Robert Long

It wasn’t until a very vocal set of conservation-minded individuals, led by folks like John Muir and Ansel Adams, started working to convince elected representatives that public lands were worth more than the meager revenues their sale and exploitation generated that opinion about how to use them began to shift. Safeguarding our public lands all began with the designation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 by Teddy Roosevelt, with subsequent changes in federal law to reserve the national forest lands and preserve recreation opportunities and natural spaces.

For a long time, the effort was largely driven by white men, conservative in their values, hoping to protect these spaces primarily for people like them. And for decades, that kind of status-quo conservation was enough to conserve over 50 national parks, over 150 national monuments, and millions of acres of national forests, wildlife refuges and land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

We have all benefited from their visionary thinking and the political will to stand up to special interests–like mining, logging, and drilling– that are fundamentally opposed to any public lands conservation. But policies are shifting toward protecting these places for all people.

A Changing Conservation Legacy for Public Lands

For some time now, the conservation legacy of our forefathers has started to seem a little shallow. Yes, beautiful and wondrous places have been permanently protected. However, those early strides are now overwhelmed by climate change, threats from new technology like oil drilling, the astounding amount of money it takes to drive government policy to protect these places, and the understanding–advanced by Wildlands Network’s founders–that islands of protected areas are not enough to conserve our native species.

What’s more, the Trump Administration has launched a full-scale attack on at least 10 national monuments, including Bears Ears National Monument, which Former President Obama designated just last December. You can speak up for our public lands now by contacting your senators, empowering them to stand up to President Trump and urge him to protect our public lands.

Toward the horizon on the right side of the frame, a red standstone plateau rises out of the vermillion sand and green grass landscape.The sky is blue and dotted with fluffy white clouds.
Bears Ears National Monument in Arizona, one of the 10 national monuments at risk of being opened up to special interests like logging, mining, and drilling. Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

But in addition to these threats, there lies an even more troubling issue. Many of our public lands also fail to fully embrace the knowledge and cultures of the communities that lived and thrived in these places long before Teddy Roosevelt came along. The stories of our public lands sometimes ignore the people who came before them and shaped the very lands that national parks, wilderness areas, and national forests protect. But that’s quickly changing.

Our public lands are incredibly diverse. They include seashores, cliff faces, mountain meadows, glaciers, grassy plains, swamps, bogs, wetlands, and caves. They contain habitat for millions of native species–plants, animals, the entire web of life, discovered and undiscovered.

A runner heads toward Grand Staircase after crossing the Kaibab Plateau in Kaibab National Forest. Photo: Kaibab National Forest, Southwestern Region, USDA Forest Service

It is exactly their diversity that we celebrate and cherish. Americans can enjoy hiking through the Kaibab National Forest, fly fishing in Glacier National Park, mountain biking through red rock on BLM lands near Moab, hunting a six-point buck in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, or camping along the Middle Fork of the Gila in the Gila National Forest. None of these places is quite like the others.

This incredible natural diversity is enjoyed by an equally diverse set of people. While there are  still hurdles to jump and much work to be done to increase access to public lands, it is, thankfully, no longer just white men that matter when it comes to protecting public lands.

Regardless of religious belief, political affiliation, age, gender, occupation, race, sexual orientation, or level of ability, Americans love their public lands. We may disagree about the best way to manage them, but, by and large, we don’t quibble over whether they should exist.

And, through programs like Every Kid in a Park and the American Conservation Corps, millions more children and young adults are given the opportunity to enjoy them every year. Never before have more Americans had access to public lands, and never before have more supported protecting them.

A man hikes Avalanche Lake with an off-road wheelchair in Glacier National Park. Photo: Jacob W. Frank, NPS

Wildlands Network believes the only way to adequately celebrate and honor the diversity of our public lands is to embrace the diversity of the people who love them; to channel that love into action; and to ensure that every American has the opportunity to experience our great outdoors.

The challenges facing our public lands are more complex than those of the past. It is only together–appreciating and accepting our differences and embracing them as strengths rather than weaknesses–that we can see our vision of a reconnected landscape come to fruition.

On Saturday, while you and your fellow Americans get out and enjoy our public lands, we’ll be celebrating not the past, but the future of our public lands and the communities we will rally to protect them. To help us protect them now and into the future, contact your senators today. Tell them you America includes public lands for all Americans to enjoy.

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