I know this awesome couple out in Idaho. Bruce and Kat, like many folks in Idaho, are avid users of the great outdoors. Bruce hunts elk with a bow and fishes rattlesnake infested canyons with a fly rod. They both ride fat tire bikes up and over majestic ridge lines. In a day, Kat can cross-country ski distances that I won’t drive without a bathroom break. All on public lands that are easily accessible.
I like to think I'm pretty outdoorsy as well. I’ll backpack a dozen miles just to so I can spend a night sleeping on the ground and gazing at the stars. While my opportunities to run into a timber rattler are limited, a fat rainbow leaping from the water on the end of a fly line connects me to more than just a fish. Walking along a land trust’s trails with Ann, we marvel at how the land has been purposed and repurposed since colonial times.
Aside from athleticism and stamina, what differentiates the pursuits of Ann and I from those of Bruce and Kat is that our east coast activities are largely allowed due to the goodwill of our neighbors. A little more than 5% of Connecticut’s lands are publicly held. Private ownership closes off vast swaths of streams and forests to outdoor pursuits. And even when private landowners are inclined to open their property the patchwork of access and rules makes use difficult.
By contrast, Bruce and Kat enjoy copious amounts of landscape for their activities. Two-thirds of Idaho’s lands are in state and federal hands. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 74% of Idahoans enjoy this bounty. Outdoor recreation in Idaho generates $6.3 billion in outdoor spending, 77,000 jobs for Idahoans, $1.8 billion in wages and salaries and more than $460 million in state and local tax revenue. On a per capita basis, that’s more than double the benefit that Connecticut receives. Double.
There are movements afoot in state capitols across the west to try and shift federal lands into state hands. We already know what the result of such a shift would be because state governments have given us ample historic examples. State governments would sell the lands to raise funds to balance budgets. Once those lands are in private hands, whether it be a tech billionaires, mining concerns, or foreign oligarchs, the fence posts will be painted and signs will be posted.
With less public resource, land use conflicts among public users, that's you and I, become more acute. Mountain bikes vs hikers. Hikers vs Dog Walkers. Dog Walkers vs ATVers. ATVers vs Birders. Birders vs Feral Cat People. We lose more than just access. We lose a bit of ourselves in the ensuing battles.
A bunch of folks out west want to go from what they have — abundant lands that support multiple uses — to the scarcity which we have in the east. Really, that’s what they want? Scarcity over abundance? That’s just plain idiotic.
There are many precious birthrights that we have as Americans. The lands which we all share — those vast swaths of purple mountains and amber waves of grain — are among the most precious. We shouldn't squander that birthright, shed the abundance, seek scarcity because of political ideology or imprudent fiscal policies.
I guarantee that those in the west don't want what I have, but they may not discover this until it's too late. And, if history should serve as a lesson, there's no going back once it has begun.