This Land is Our Land

The couple approached me on the trail, tossing a frisbee for their dog to retrieve. I petted the friendly dog when he approached, and politely informed the guy that he should really keep the dog on a leash. There were lots of people on the trail, some with dogs or kids, and I offered him a leash if he didn’t have one.

He told me that he had a leash, but wouldn’t put it on. I offered to tell him all the reasons why he should, including that it was one of the park rules. He noted my volunteer uniform and fired off a volley about over-reaching petty bureaucrats, etc. and walked away. (I find that often the nicest dogs are owned by assholes.)

His rant made me think of those people that don’t understand how our society works. We try to manage our interactions though behavioral norms, and we expect some degree of adherence to them. We determine these norms by electing people to represent us in making decisions about all kinds of things, including managing our parklands and the people that oversee them. There are actually plenty of places where you can have your dog off the leash, but there are others where that isn’t the norm.

The ‘take back our lands’ movement strikes me the same way. Particularly in the West, the federal government took possession of the land on behalf of the American people. Some was purchased, some we stole from the native Americans, and some we fought for. As a people, we then divided the place up into territories, then states, with provisions for representation. Some lands were reserved for the federal or state governments, some for educational institutions, and some for private uses, including railroads and homesteads. (If anybody deserves to ‘take back our lands,’ it’s most likely the native Americans that we displaced.)

Much of the federal land was determined to be multi-use, for its mineral resources, forest products and agricultural values, but some was set aside for its natural beauty or uniqueness. I think of land and its resources as though it was money in a savings account. I can use some of it now and should save some for a rainy day. But I know that I really need to save it over the long term for my family. As a nation, we can use some of our land and resources now, hopefully in a managed, less-destructive manner; we can use some of it for emergencies; and we really should be saving most of it for those who come after us.

Each use comes with its own set of rules and user responsibilities. On federal lands we have rules for grazing, logging, mineral extraction (including oil and gas), camping, hiking, horseback riding and almost any use. In cities and towns, the press of humanity is enough that any missteps are pretty visible, and we have designated individuals and organizations that encourage adherence to the norms. Out on ‘the land’, however, there are usually not enough official people to educate or enforce the norms.

And the truth is, (nearly) all of us are human, with our own set of foibles and flaws. Sometimes we don’t bother to read the sign or learn the rules, and sometimes we choose to ignore or forget them. People speed, drink or use drugs while driving, toss trash out their windows, they don’t leash their dogs or pick up the dog poop. They don’t reclaim their mines properly; they have oil spills and gaseous emissions; they graze livestock in wetlands and don’t protect stream banks; they overfish and fish or hunt out of season. No matter how sound or reasonable the rule, someone will break it.

This week in the nearby Colorado mountains, a couple of guys camped illegally on private land, failed to extinguish their campfire, and started a major forest fire that’s burned a large area of forest, and at least eight homes — so far. They were vagrants, moving around and getting by, presumably rootless and not responsible to anyone. That’s the American dream of the 1800’s – go west, live off the land and your fortune will come to you. Today, that dream doesn’t work; we’ve learned that the land isn’t limitless and has to be managed for all the people. We all have rules to follow.

These guys’ failure to understand that has resulted in a significant loss of resources, threatening life and property. This equates to a theft of land and public resources from each of us, not to mention the homes lost by some individuals. Even if you clean it up or restore the use, you have taken something from me and everyone else. So, since it’s really our land being managed for our benefit, don’t we have a responsibility, or maybe a duty, to see that it’s taken care of?

We need to learn the rules; participate in public decision making processes; and help other people understand how to care for the land that belongs to them, too. The onus is on us to protect our savings account for the future.

(By the way, it’s not only assholes that have nice dogs.)

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