Childhood and playing outside were synonymous for me. Even in the dead of Minnesotan winter I was most often found outside, building forts with neighborhood friends, playing broomball, or sledding at the local hill. I fell in love with public lands well before I understood what or how important they were, all thanks to my parents. Without oversharing family history, here’s the SparkNotes version:
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My mom and dad met as park rangers and raised my triplet sisters and me, as some might say, in the woods (it wasn’t exactly a pack-of-wolves fairytale, but we did own two large black labs so I’m sure we occasionally gave that impression). My mom, now retired, was an endangered species biologist who spent her career studying moose, wolf, lynx, and migratory birds for the Fish and Wildlife Service. My dad, also retired, is a cultural anthropologist who was the Superintendent of a national monument for nearly twenty years. They taught us how to paddle, hike, and camp at the same time we were learning to walk. They also taught us the historical, ecological, and cultural importance of these wild places.
Over 100 years ago, former American president Teddy Roosevelt spearheaded the preservation of wild, scenic, and culturally relevant lands by creating the National Park Service. In doing so, he declared that wildlife, history, and recreation — and the protection of these forests, rivers, lake, mountains, deserts and wetlands for future generations — were more important than commercial development. What I love most about public lands is that they are open to everyone, regardless of one’s background, economic status, political or religious affiliations. Very few other nations have been able to protect as much land for public use by all citizens.
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I wanted to celebrate some of my favorite public lands to help share their importance to me and significance to local communities and indigenous people. Places like Yosemite and Yellowstone aren’t on this list. Instead you’ll hear names like Alabama Hills, Marin Headlands, Grand Staircase Escalante, Emigrant Wilderness, and other lesser-known protected lands. In the last century, America has protected more than a thousand national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas. As a complete system, these places offer obvious things such as clean air and water, but also more nebulous concepts like freedom, wonder, and reflection.
“America has protected more than a thousand national parks, monuments and wilderness areas. Very few other nations have been able to protect as much.”
My trip started on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains: jumping in hot springs, running alpine trails, reading in hammocks, and meeting locals in Mammoth, Lone Pine, and Twin lakes. It only takes a handful of conversations to learn how important these wilderness areas are to the adjacent towns. Public lands create notable economic growth for nearby communities that otherwise probably wouldn’t exist. Tourism, recreation, scientific research, and effective management of timber, livestock, coal, gas, and other resources — in total, public lands contribute nearly $900 billion and 7.6 million jobs to the economy each year. Public lands and outdoor recreation make up America’s fourth biggest industry, larger than electronics or automobiles.
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My trip continued east towards desert country. I spent a few days driving back roads in Death Valley National Park, hiking trails and skiing sand dunes. Death Valley is a unique national park — it’s one of the biggest in the entire system and if you’re willing to leave the main thoroughfare through the park, it’s nearly empty. A dirt road network weaves across the park, often rough and infrequently visited, but for those willing to get a little adventurous, it’s certainly worth your time. In total, there are 640 million acres of public land across the country and every single one is owned by the American public. That’s the absolute best part: you own them!
“This is the largest rollback of public lands in American history.”
After a few days I left California and headed to Southeast Utah to meet up with 15 friends from across the country. We planned to run a 250-mile relay across five federal lands — Bears Ears National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Capitol Reef National Park, and Grand Staircase Escalante — to voice our support for keeping these places federally protected. This corner of Southeast Utah is one of the most culturally important lands in the country and it’ll soon be open to oil drilling and uranium mining after Trump’s announcement in December to reduce the protected land by a total of 2 million acres. This is the the largest rollback of public lands in American history.
Here’s the worst part: the Administration received more than three million public comments this summer, and 98-percent of those comments favored keeping the Monuments intact. The President made his decision without ever visiting either national monument or meeting with local tribal leaders. Federal law requires these lands to be managed to meet the current and future needs of the American people and it’s time to speak up and make sure they stay wild, scenic, and relevant. I hope that everyone — including future generations — gets that same opportunity that I have had. You can learn more about to take action to protect public land here. I would love your help speaking up to keep these places wild!