Thursday, September 22, 2016
Although my body is in desperate need of some reasoning skills, my brain is several hundred miles away, thinking about a criminal trial in Portland, Oregon. In that Oregon courtroom, seven people face the consequences of their forty-day occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Their primary complaint was that the federal government lacks the authority to own or manage the nation’s public lands, and that those lands should instead be transferred to local governments or private interests. It is not entirely inappropriate for me to be thinking about the Malheur trial, as I am sitting in an inflatable kayak on Idaho’s Selway River in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, trying to navigate a series of rocky rapids that are well beyond my limited paddling skills. But my thoughts are in Portland because the arguments of the Malheur militants threaten what I am now trying to experience, and I fear that we are collectively forgetting about the value of wild and lonely places, and thus unnecessarily risking the future of our public lands.
When he signed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, President Johnson noted that although we had been slow to learn how “to prize and protect God’s precious gifts,” we had finally recognized the value of wild and natural places, and ensured that “our own children and grandchildren will come to know and come to love the great forests and the wild rivers that we have protected and left to them.” The Selway is one of those places, one of eight river systems originally protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
For a few moments, my brain returns from its Portland wanderings and allows me to focus on the place and experience that cradles me. At its September low-water clarity, I can pick out individual granitic crystals as I watch the cutthroat swim between the rocks twenty feet below my boat. The canyon walls are from two different worlds, with dry, open Ponderosa pine forests on the south-facing slopes opposite dense cedars and ferns on the north-facing—the desert and rainforest connected by waters they imperfectly share. We paddle through boulders with driftwood logs four feet in diameter balanced a dozen feet above the water’s surface, hinting of demons that must lurk these waters in other seasons. And in the interludes between the hoots and hollers of the rapids, we find ourselves quietly transfixed by our surroundings, unable to find any words except the occasional and reverential, “this is so cool.”
Although the rapids and deep pools, cliff walls and cedar trees, and hundreds of friendly trout demand my attention, I continue to return to that Portland court room. While the specific arguments presented there are not likely to succeed in the policy realm, they are but the extreme end of a real problem. Because although the Bundys and their followers do not represent Western values, nor the desires of an overwhelming majority of the people who regularly work on, recreate in, and know and love the public lands, there are a number of no less frightening proposals cloaked in more reasonable-looking raiment seeking the same ends. Idaho’s U.S. Representative Raul Labrador continues to push a bill—against the wishes of many of his constituents—that would transfer large portions of Idaho’s public lands to a cash-strapped and industry-captured legislature. The Republican Party’s platform calls for Congress to “immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.” And the state of Utah is spending millions of taxpayer dollars preparing a lawsuit to challenge the authority of the federal government to own and manage any of the public lands.
This is why, despite somewhat more pressing needs, and being surrounded by one of the Earth’s most pristine landscapes, I can’t get my brain out of Portland.
But still the river draws me in. Even if unknown to many, the Selway represents a quintessential Idaho—and public lands—experience. Although the backcountry airstrip that marked the beginning of the river stretch of our adventure already had three airplanes on the ground when we landed, and two of our pilots left immediately to return with a group of bear hunters from Norway, we were soon alone on the river and would see no other people for days.
We are eight good friends, both old and new, here to celebrate forty years of a good life. A couple of professors, five employee-owners of the local whitewater products company, and a Sacramento police officer happily ignoring our stories of youthful, and not so youthful, indiscretions, we all share a love of wild places even as we express it in different ways. Like any other group of men our age, we carry our skeletons—our bouts with depression and alcohol, our fears and inadequacies, and our hopes that the children we are raising and worlds we are creating turn out better than we did. So we are here in celebration, but also for healing, for temporary escape, and in search of memories of beauty to carry us through our ugly times. Each night as we sit around the campfire, alone in hundreds of miles of forest with our own private river, living an experience that will forever connect us and this place, I can feel the scars soften, and the residual angers and fears fade and flow down into the river, which carries them away.
Unfortunately, this one crucial thing gets lost in the chaos of the Bundys and Malheur, and Utah’s New Orleans lawyers polishing off discredited legal arguments—the power of the land. Their focus on federalism, State’s rights, obscure and perhaps misinterpreted Constitutional provisions, and willful ignorance of Supreme Court precedent takes us away from the qualities that most and best connect people to the public lands and wild rivers.
The public lands are not a mere legal construct, nor are they simply a resource to be extracted and commodified. At their best, they are personal, emotional, and subtly primeval, connecting us to a wildness and beauty that can quiet and calm us, and dissolve the scar tissue of ancient wounds—real and imagined, physical and emotional. The August crowd at Old Faithful in Yellowstone—or even the hundreds of more obscure public lands recreation sites across the West and country—speaks, with some irony, to a need for wild, natural, and lonely places. And although not all of us can fly a small plane into the Selway’s backcountry airstrips, or even visit Yellowstone, America’s public lands landscape extends throughout the interstices of Western life. Even the West’s largest cities are only short journeys from quiet mountain streams, lonely forests, or empty sagebrush prairies. For many people, these small spaces are a Yellowstone or Yosemite, places of refuge in a complicated life. And they are public spaces, inherently democratic, welcoming anyone seeking peace, solitude, adventure, beauty, or wisdom.
So it is this that is most troubling about Malheur, the Bundys, Utah’s legislature, and Representative Labrador. As Wallace Stegner argued, the West is the native home of hope. Much more than angry, scofflaw ranchers, industrial timber harvesting, or massive dams, the West is about wildness, loneliness, adventure, freedom to explore and be reborn, and space to reconnect with our own wildness. Our public lands and wild rivers can be healing, unifying spaces, both individually and collectively. They are not elitist spaces reserved for the few or the favored; they are spaces for everyone to find their own beauty.
Eventually, all adventures must end, and I do manage to focus enough on the water in front of me to safely arrive at our take out, and the fried chicken and cold beer that is waiting for us there. In the last slow miles on our final day, as we quietly paddle the deep pools and easy rapids, I find myself consistently turning to face upstream. I do so not just because I do not want this trip to end, but because I fear for what I’m leaving behind. In enacting the Wilderness Act, we chose, collectively, to secure forever “the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” And with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, we determined that some rivers should remain always in their natural, free-flowing, and wild condition.
Just as we once made that collective choice to protect the wild and natural, and to preserve beautiful landscapes of all types, we are also capable of making the alternative choice: to prefer use over solitude, dams over rapids, timber harvests over wildlife habitat, private benefits over public spaces, the tame over the wild.
But I believe we remain better than that. We remain capable of understanding beauty. More important, we remain capable of deserving beauty.
If we care about ensuring future generations the same wildness we have enjoyed, our path cannot be to ridicule the Bundys, to trust that Labrador’s bill will not get past the Senate or President, or to believe that the Supreme Court will honor precedent in any Utah lawsuit seeking control of the public lands. It was not legal argument that first gave us National Parks and Wilderness, protected free-flowing rivers, or reserved our forests for future generations. It was instead the stories of adventure, the paintings and photographs carried thousands of miles back to Congress, and the willingness to recognize the spiritual as well as the commercial. It was the green fire, and the power of wild rivers and wild landscapes. So our path must be to remember the value of wildness, to tell our stories, show our photos, and share our experiences, to be willing to talk about beauty and healing and grace, to share our special places with our neighbors, and to love our public lands. It is time for the prophets and evangelists to return, for the storytellers to again climb the trees and ride the whirlwind, and for us all to love and live the wild again.