Rocky Mountain National Park: Another public-lands treasure owned by all of us. Image: Judith Kohler

America’s public lands

The cure for what ails our unsettled times

By Judith Kohler, National Wildlife Federation

This past week, the Rocky Mountain region was the site of two large gatherings of people from across the country, coming together to discuss the quality of our lives, the future of our families and nation — and how much there is to celebrate about each other.

The last part of the previous sentence should be a clue that I’m not talking about the current political rallies. The events — one in Jackson, Wyo., and one in Denver — were generally described as conservation or environmental conferences, but could also be called grassroots exercises in democracy.

Some of my colleagues at the National Wildlife Federation were in Denver for the Americas Latino Eco Festival, hosted by Latino organizations to highlight the people and communities working on important environmental issues, foster collaboration and brainstorm innovative solutions.

The National Wildlife Federation sponsored the 4th annual Americas Latino Eco Festival (ALEF), held in Denver, Colorado from October 13th-15th. Presented by Americas for Conservation + the Arts, this Latino-hosted multicultural gathering intends to elevate “in particular the voices of communities of color, and of women in conservation and cultural leadership.” Imaage: People enjoying Grand Canyon National Park. Photo by Erin Whittaker/ NPS

About 500 miles and eight hours to the northwest, mountain climbers, kayakers, hikers, mountain bikers, people with city and county open-space agencies, state and federal land managers, wildlife, social justice and youth advocates, hunters, anglers, self-described eco-feminists, long-distance runners, educators and writers gathered at the SHIFT Festival in Jackson. Organizers brought together people passionate about outdoor recreation, public lands and making our planet a good place for people and other creatures.

The Tetons: One of the young leaders featured during the conference, Mabari Byrd of Philadelphia, an AmeriCorps supervisor, recalled his reaction upon seeing the Tetons when he arrived in Jackson. “This is mine!” he said with glee. Image: Judith Kohler

An orchestrated movement aimed at dismantling America’s public-lands heritage has lent urgency to efforts to work together. A small but relentless band of state and federal lawmakers, 21st Century robber barons and Sagebrush Rebels without a clue is trying to seize our public lands by legislative fiat or armed force.

“The public lands of our country are our birthright as Americans,” said Christian Beckwith, director of SHIFT, Shaping How We Invest For Tomorrow.

The people behind SHIFT believe the coalition of diverse interests who care about public lands “has the potential to become a movement.”

We’ve been working in a fragmented fashion, we’ve been working in silos, Beckwith said. “It’s going to take all of us to do it.” He called the conference that drew people from big cities, small towns and rural areas an antidote to the divisiveness and cynicism roiling national politics.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, spoke during the opening session, each acknowledging the value of public lands to the economy and quality of life.

“I think we need more public land, not less,” Hickenlooper said.

If the meeting of diverse stakeholders is an antidote for politics as usual, the wide range of experience and perspectives and the wisdom and thoughtfulness offered by a group of young leaders at the SHIFT conference are a prescription for long-term health.

The 30-some young men and women work outdoors, in the inner cities and suburbs. They’re African American, Hispanic, Native American, white — from all backgrounds.

They spoke forthrightly.

One woman talked about feeling out of place without the latest outdoor gear but keeps returning to the wild places as a way to heal and feel empowered. Another woman explained that spending time outdoors in her Los Angeles neighborhood isn’t always a good idea because of the pollution and nauseating smells from a meatpacking plant.

Young people in urban areas are looking for ways to connect with nature. Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge sits just outside of Denver. The refuge was established in part to protect Bald eagle nesting and winter roosting habitat. Its 15,000 acres of prairie and lakes attract raptors, migrating songbirds, wintering ducks and geese and provides habitat for a variety of mammals including bison, coyotes and deer. Image: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

A lot of people don’t have easy access to national parks, wildlife refuges and forests. Some people are more focused on making their immediate environments livable than on planning their next camping trip.

But the impulses that drive us to conserve our public lands, fish and wildlife are the same impulses that move us to speak out for cleaning up polluted industrial sites in cities, demand that school children have safe drinking water and ensure rural communities have a say in proposed oil and gas drilling.

We all share the same home and owe it to each other to make it safe and a good place to live. SHIFT and the Americas Latino Eco Festival are hopeful signs that people are increasingly recognizing that we are more united than it seems.

And that more and more people realize America’s public lands are irreplaceable and belong to all of us. One of the young leaders featured during the conference, Mabari Byrd of Philadelphia, an AmeriCorps supervisor, recalled his reaction upon seeing the Tetons when he arrived in Jackson. “This is mine!” he said with glee.

Yes, it is. And there are many, many of us who intend to keep it that way.

Join in the call to have elected officials and candidates to pledge to keep our public lands in public hands.

Judith Kohler is the public lands communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation, based in Denver. A native of the Black Hills in western South Dakota, she worked for more than 25 years as a news reporter covering politics, energy and the environment in the Rocky Mountain region.