The Public Lands Carpool

It can be a tight squeeze to get everyone on board.

While our backs were turned watching the chaos of the Bundy occupation in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, legislation that threatens our right to be involved in public lands decisions gained traction in Congress. Presidential candidates got away with unthinkable statements about land management. And as the violent militia trampled Paiute sacred sites and terrorized a rural town, elected officials seized an opportunity. If ever there was a moment for public lands advocates to show our strength in numbers, that moment is now.

It’s Sunday morning and the grocery store I’m standing in front of is just opening its doors. The parking lot cement is slick and the drizzle of rain persists for the 23rd day in a row. I’m holding the clipboard tight to my chest so the maps I printed out won’t get any more wet than most everything is in the midst of an Oregon winter. A group of people have gathered around, tentatively, clutching their daypacks close and asking questions about where we’re hiking today. I’m forcing the groggy off my face, intent on displaying a welcoming, sunny disposition before we begin the moment of truth: the carpool.

Since 1999, every second Sunday of the month, Bark leads a free, public hike. Bark is the watchdog for Mt. Hood National Forest and these educational hikes are central to our work of protecting the forest. We let people know about them through a canvass, a public access television show, and as regular guests on the community radio station. Over the years, thousands of people who live in the shadow of our beloved mountain have come on a “Bark About.”

To ensure that everyone has a ride, we always coordinate a carpool for our hikes. It’s an act of faith early on a Sunday morning; will enough drivers show up? There’s usually a dog. And a person in the wrong shoes for walking in a rainforest. And a shy person. And a not-shy person. An older woman looking for the safety of hiking with others and a young man who regrettably stayed out for one too many the night before. A student studying the sex life of lichens and an eager activist, new to town, looking for her people. And others, so many others.

You never know who will show and what coordination will be necessary to get them all on the road to our hike. But our carpool is the practice for the principles of public lands that we’re going to lay out while we walk:

You have to show up.

It’s going to take generosity and flexibility to be sure everyone is on board.

It’s a tight squeeze, but leaving people and critters behind is not an option.

I think this is why it felt so personal the morning that the Bundy’s occupation in the Malheur started to flicker over my news feeds. Like a lot of environmental activists, I’ve crossed the line to put my body in the way of a threat to the places I love. I could imagine the adrenaline coursing through their body as they seized a power nobody was giving them.

And yet, most days, as public lands advocates, we’re sweating the details of the Forest Service’s mission for “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.” In 1969, Congress wrote a law that gave guidance about how the government might learn from the greatest amount of people. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed in response to an uptick in highway development ramming through poor neighborhoods. The public could see that it wasn’t right for a few powerful individuals with insatiable greed to obliterate the connections communities had with their homes and the environment around them. It defended the public’s right to question whether the greatest amount of people would be served by the “goods” industry was claiming.

The Bundy’s sharpest sword tries to cut down our arguments by defending The Local. And for this, we have common ground perhaps; the water in my home comes directly from the national forest. But the “greatest good for the greatest amount of people” ethos becomes very important in the face of cataclysmic climate change. And here is where the privatization movement is very, very wrong; the Pacific Northwest forests that I depend on are one of the greatest carbon sequesters in the world and play a critical role in global climate change resilience. We cannot afford to be narrow in our view of who will benefit from public lands.

At Bark, we’re going to keep leading our hikes. We’re going to keep training people how to speak up for our beloved Mt. Hood forests. And at the end of the day, we believe the connection people have with the millions of acres of public land is much too deep to be severed by a rowdy slumber party at a federal office. But we also see the threats that are mounting. And it’s time to show our strength in numbers.

Load up!

Amy Harwood is the Interim Executive Director for Bark, the watchdogs for Mt. Hood National Forest.