I’ve been thinking about access almost constantly these days, what it means and doesn’t mean, what we can and, more important, should do about it. I really don’t want to think about it anymore, because from every perspective it sucks.
I came to this conclusion while rising to the top of Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley. I’d skied the peak many times over the previous 35 years, a proud achievement for the simple fact that each adventure required an arduous hike from 11,900 feet to Kachina’s 12,480 foot summit. Recently, a hedge fund magnate purchased the ski area and built the chairlift up the face of the peak. As promised, the lift gave me the thrill of Kachina without the cost in lungs and legs, and the time to ruminate over access.
In recent months, I had joined the battle to prevent certain New Mexico legislators from wresting control of federal public lands for subsequent sale, barter or gift at the state’s discretion. A significant aspect of their argument was that, thanks to environmentalists and compliant government managers, too much country is locked up as wilderness and thus inaccessible to the person on the street who might want to enjoy the land from the comfort of a vehicle.
The legislature also debated and passed a stream access bill making it illegal for anglers to fish streams crossing private property. Since the 1940s, New Mexicans had generally assumed that such access was already illegal. One notable exception was a state legislator who didn’t like that the stream he fished as a boy now flowed through properties owned by outsiders who’d stopped allowing locals to fish.
In 2014, at the behest of this legislator, the Attorney General issued an opinion that the streambed was as public as the water that flowed over it. Expert legal opinions alternatively supported and discredited the opinion. Practical and administrative quandaries arose too, as well as broader questions on habitat impacts from increased fishing pressure on New Mexico’s rivers, which, if defined relative to streams in most states, are mostly creeks.
Many believe that the access legislation is unlikely to solve anything, and I tend to agree. Since the AG’s opinion was first filed, the road to legislation has been so strewn with righteous invective and misinformation that, on the broader subject of stream access, far more heat has been shed than light.
Similar to politicians quoting Thomas Jefferson, we conservationists like to burnish our street cred, legitimately or not, by invoking Leopold or Teddy Roosevelt. The New Mexico Land Commissioner and his son actually employed this tactic to justify the federal-to-state land grab, in spite of it being a clear contradiction of what Roosevelt would have supported. I’ve played the Conservation Hero card myself a couple times. Heck, I’m doing it again right now.
As we know, Roosevelt and his public lands ideas came to our rescue just in time. Thanks to the Erie Canal, Lewis and Clark’s journey, and coast to coast railroads, paths were cleared and then followed to the western horizons. Mountains were stripped of their logs and ore, and various homestead decrees populated the interior with farmers, ranchers, and land barons. Mix in a civil war and Native American genocide, and one would conclude, as Roosevelt might have, that our innocence was officially lost.
Of the world’s 1.75 billion people at the time of T.R’s presidency, the United States was home to around 92 million. He didn’t live to see the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression or the Second World War, didn’t see dams choke the Columbia River or the consequent free fall of its wild salmon races. Though alive for the invention of the automobile, he didn’t witness the ascendance of cars and petroleum to the almost religious plane they occupy today.
By Aldo Leopold’s death in 1948, the global population had grown to 2.5 billion, of which about 147 million were Americans. The baby boom had just begun and would last another 14 or so years, a period during which GDP sky rocketed, and huge swaths of natural earth became pavement, houses, and lawns. In this period Courtney White refers to as “the Great Fiesta”, dams went up as fast as forests were cut down.
Since 1960, we’ve seen important responses to the environmental impacts of our expansion – the Wilderness and Endangered Species Acts, the Clean Water and Air Acts, and Superfund. Aldo Leopold might agree that we are better for these initiatives. Were he alive to witness our warming climate, however, he might also agree that they were but fingers in an increasingly porous dyke.
The U.S. is currently home to 350 million of the world’s 7 billion souls. Human access, in other words, is nigh complete, and though this access tilts towards wealth and privilege, we must remember that, in America at least, Roosevelt gave us all a stake. Remember also that with our stake comes the responsibility for what it has wrought.
To an audience of land management professionals, a couple friends of mine recently described a practice employed by firewood collectors who, driving all terrain machines, harvest their way into heretofore roadless sanctuaries, from which they poach wildlife and wood. This practice is similar to settlement patterns documented in rainforest regions; wounds make their way deeper into the country and over time become accepted as normal parts of the landscape. Instead of healing they become scars.
Knowing that legal land uses leave scars as well, (backpack to a high elevation lake in New Mexico, and find me a blade of grass growing at a campsite) we find ourselves in a position where we must choose well if the resources we seek to access – terrain, animals, fish, solitude – are to remain in the states we desire. There’s the rub though, the desired state differing from person to person, and the fact that sacrifices will be required no matter what.
It’s time to be honest with ourselves about this.
Can’t hike your favorite mountain like you used to before the babies and the belly slowed you down? Well, the mountain was younger once too. It can afford your ATV now or elk, but not both. It is still accessible though. Hit the gym, do some cardio, understand that part of the reason you loved that hill so much was that it sometimes played hard to get. Hire a horse outfit if it’s too much trouble. Think about spending a few bucks.
You want to fish some private land? Knock on the door, keep coming back until you’ve got an offer they can’t refuse, perhaps a trade. Repair some fence, clear some brush, collaborate on a habitat project, or come out at midnight and help irrigate. Find out if a fly shop has a lease on the property you want to fish. Think about spending a few bucks.
Though blessed with some of the world’s most resilient trout habitat, Argentina closes much of its best water for half the year. Creeks identified as spawning havens are closed to fishing of any kind, always and forever. Similar, though less draconian, restrictions have sprung up across America. Montana’s Smith River and New Mexico’s Valle Vidal come to mind as examples of a price in access being placed on premium quality resources.
Taking it a step further, might it be true that there are places where the best access might be no access at all? The Nature Conservancy owns a stretch of California’s McCloud River, where no use of any kind is permitted (no trespass is informally but strictly enforced by no clear trails and plenty of poison oak). Might we at least contemplate such restrictions if certain critical or vibrant ecosystems would benefit, if we truly value those ecosystems for themselves?
Seriously, with things like fracking or the land theft risk going on, how prepared are we to protect the land, even, as the case may be, from ourselves? A very tough call indeed, one I would love to see tackled by Roosevelt and Leopold as their legacy enters the 21st century. But since that’s impossible I hope to see this question addressed, and much better than it has been, by all who claim to follow in their footsteps.