Power to the public

A year spent on public lands
fly fishing idaho
Photo: Kris Millgate

I saw Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for the first time in January 2016. Well, sort of saw it. The fog was as thick as smoke trapped in a burning trailer house the morning I arrived at the refuge. Camera in hand, confused literally and figuratively, I couldn’t get a handle on my surroundings or the situation. The fog was hours from blowing away. The problem was months from going away.

As I listened to a man on a frost-covered horse argue with a man in a camo-patterned coat, I knew we’d reached a historical moment. Our nation had a group of people taking over federal land for the public’s sake while other people wanted them to leave for the public’s sake. The vigor behind the argument made it more than trivial. While recording the scene, I made a deal with myself. Keep track of how many days I spend on public lands in 2016.

Now at year’s end, I’m adding up every day on my desk calendar marked with ‘PL’ for public land. December is the lowest month. Eight. July is the highest. Sixteen. There are several months with a close second to that. Grand total: 132.

I spent 132 days on public lands in 2016. That’s more than four months of the year. I didn't inflate my actions for a higher number. I just went about my normal live, work and play routine and added the simple step of tracking my public lands use during that routine.

BHA t-shirt public land owner
Photo: Ted Koch

I camped, cooked, cried and laughed on public lands. Even bled and oozed during some of those cries. I learned to row a drift boat on public waters and shoot a shotgun in public woods. I ran trail at sea level and one 10,000 feet above it. I fished flats, hunted hills and slept well under Mother Nature’s canopy.

As the PLs on my calendar stacked up, the masses got worked up. Thousands of Americans evolved from ‘it will never happen’ to ‘it will never happen on my watch.’ Natural resource nonprofits helped the evolution along.

The National Wildlife Federation, national membership 6 million, sent me around the country to ask members what public lands mean to them. The film Your Land was the result. Trout Unlimited, national membership 154,500, launched 30 Days of Public Lands in September. Stories of public lands and the people who use them. And Backcountry Hunters and Anglers sold t-shirts. A plain black t-shirt with three words in block letters across the chest: Public Land Owner. They’ve sold 1,000. On a national scale, that’s barely a bleep, but the ball just started rolling. BHA is small and young compared to NWF and TU, but its national membership doubled to 7,500 in 2016. And it reaches 1 million people weekly on Facebook. They’re on to something and now the rest of the nation is too. Power to the public.