Section Menu

Safeguarding Our Public Lands

Editor’s Note: For our final Trusting Wildness post of the year, we leave you with Peter Metcalf’s inspirational tribute to (and plea for the continued protection of) America’s public lands. Metcalf is the founder and former CEO of Black Diamond, and now serves on various conservation and recreation boards of directors. He is also a leading conservation voice within the Outdoor Retail Association. Metcalf’s short essay, “Safeguarding Our Public Lands,” first appeared in Wildlands Network’s 25th anniversary publication, For the Wild, which was published in 2017.

Beautiful wild river whose fast-moving water is bordered by sunlit trees
Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park, California. Photo: George Wuerthner

THE WILD PUBLIC LANDS OF THE WEST are culturally rich, breathtakingly beautiful, and recreationally inspiring, both vicariously and in reality. They challenge the imagination, nourish the soul, reawaken our spirituality and help forge who we are as a democratic society. They are habitat for wildlife, watersheds, and for confronting global warming.

A woman with a backpack walks along a trail through a meadow laden with lupines and other wildflowers, toward snowy peaks in the distance.
Exploring public lands. Photo: Robert Long

They are also a global treasure. Let me share a little story with you from last summer, when I took the boat across Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. The boat was filled with people of all nationalities. I thought, “Why are they all here?” and l listened. My conclusion from what I heard was simply this: nowhere else in the world (outside of Canada) are there such magnificent, ecosystem-sized landscapes, so rich in wildlife, that are both easily accessible and safe and stable, with no concerns from revolutionaries, terrorists, or well-armed poachers. Nowhere else can you easily stand at the edge of great wild places, in awe of their beauty and wildlife, knowing that, if you like, you can explore these areas.

America’s young age means we lack the world’s great cultural and art icons, like the Sistine Chapel or David or the Louvre. But we have things even greater— the natural inspirations for the great artists and architects. They are Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, to name but a few. These places and their protection are integral to more than just our economy, quality of life, and history. They are integral to our humanity. Rachel Carson long ago asked: “Can any civilization wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized?” Clearly that question is now being parked in the driveways of our lifetimes.

The Grand Canyon stretches toward the horizon, with reds, greens and browns coloring the canyons and a river winding along the canyon floor.
Grand Canyon. Photo: Kristen M. Caldon

Fortunately, up until now, through a combination of foresight, land size, luck, and occasional bold leadership, we have been both a great modern country and a country with some of the wildest remaining places on Earth. Whether that continues will be determined by those of us here today. We are at that historical inflection point. Over half a century ago, when signing the landmark Wilderness Act, Lyndon Johnson observed: “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

With visitation to our national parks and monuments growing at compounded double digit rates, with the West facing the country’s fastest population growth, with participation in human-powered outdoor recreation steadily increasing, it is incumbent upon us to fight for the last remaining landscapes that personify what President Johnson meant and what Ken Burns implied when he said that America’s national parks were its best idea.

Brown, small, bear-like creature stands outside a wooden box in the snow
A fisher is reintroduced to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington, in 2016. Photo: Jason Ransom, National Park Service.

I think Ken Burns would agree that other protected public lands are America’s second-best idea, in part because many of these publicly owned landscapes define the larger ecosystems that the country’s national parks reside in—parks whose health will be determined by how surrounding lands are stewarded and protected. This is why Wildlands Network exists.

Implementation of our continent’s wildways is now urgent, as these ecosystems will be won or lost in the next decade.

Wildlands Network was created when scientists realized none of North America’s current protected areas were large enough to sustain wildlife for the long term. Wildlands Network responded with a solution that would change the face of conservation forever. It was called connectivity, and the idea behind it was this: if protected areas are connected with healthy habitats and if this is done on a large scale, then our life-supporting ecological processes and our native plants and animals can thrive. Implementation of our continent’s wildways is now urgent, as these ecosystems will be won or lost in the next decade. That’s how crucial this inflection point of history is.

Two hundred years ago, German philosopher Goethe wrote, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Certainly that applies to the boldness of the vision to protect a continuous ecosystem from Mexico to the Yukon. Yet it is happening in small and large ways, thanks to the hard work and inspired quixotic creativity of conservationists and recreationists—united in our commitment to protecting public lands and making a continental wildways vision become reality.

Tell us what you think! Note: All comments are moderated before appearing here.