We care for our public lands more than we know

  Hear the debate rage. As someone once said, academics get so angry at each other because the stakes are so small.


"The author does not seem to understand, and thus misrepresents, many of the concepts he wants scrutinized," asserts one scientist. "I focus on what appears to be the source of his snappishness," says another. To which the object of their criticism replies, "Unfortunately, only one side is usually presented as truth. Typically, it is the side on which our bread is buttered."


What has agitated these "fudds," as the late, great philosopher Gracie Allen called folks with advanced degrees? It was not the eternal scholarly argument over the nature of mankind, the existence of God or the designated hitter. They were arguing about having fun, and their squabble took place in the pages of The Journal of Leisure Research. This is a quarterly "devoted to original investigations (in) the field of leisure studies," a field in which 21 universities now grant doctorates.


Recreation is a scholarly discipline first of all because it is big business "-at least $300 billion a year "- but even more because ours is the first era in human history in which millions of people identify themselves by how they have fun. From Ancient Rome to Victorian England, there were always a few aristocrats who cared more about chariot-racing, falconry or dueling than running their estates or pleasing their mistresses. Now, mass affluence and inexpensive toys allow the general run of folk to follow suit.


Many do. All over the country are mountain-bikers, canoers, hikers, snowmobilers, snowboarders and motorboaters so devoted to their recreation of choice that it has replaced ethnic group, religion, political ideology and occupation as their tribal identity.


So it does not take a Ph.D. to figure out that having fun is now a major political issue. Even if you don't regularly use words like epistemology or semiotics, you can see that snowmobilers and cross-country skiers are likely to covet the same mountain trail, just as kayakers and power-boaters will want the same lake, all of which makes public land a battleground. This is the new great debate over the publicly owned land in the West.


>Right now, thanks to their support from the Bush Administration, mechanized recreators seem to have the upper hand. Just last month the Bureau of Land Management announced it would delay long-planned regulations that would restrict all-terrain vehicle use on millions of acres of public land in the West.


Nor was it an accident that the forces angry about this delay first mentioned its potential threat to other recreations "- not to the natural world. The BLM lands "provide millions of acres of key big-game habitat," proclaimed Rep. Maurice Hinchey, an upstate New York Democrat whose statement was endorsed by the Wilderness Society and other environmentalists.


Hinchey then went on to mention the songbirds, plants and rivers that might be damaged by the uncontrolled use of all-terrain vehicles. But the opening appeal to the hunting lobby revealed both a political maturity that is welcome and a political hard-headedness that might be misplaced.


The maturity involves the implicit rejection of the claim by some non-mechanized recreators that their leisure pursuits of say, backpacking in the wilderness, are not mere recreation, but a spiritual communion with nature and whatever lies behind it.


Pifflesnortch! One person's idea of fun is inherently not superior to another's. True, one hiker almost certainly does less damage to the natural world than one off-roader. But there are many more hikers in the West these days, enough in some places to degrade the resource. Though this is a good argument for reserving more public land for the hikers, it does not justify the notion that the hiker is morally superior to the ATV driver.


There is also reason to wonder whether the nonmotorized recreation set and its environmentalist allies have gotten more worried than necessary about being painted as elitists who would challenge the public's right to enjoy its own land. Hikers and their allies might be under-estimating the public.


In 1998, the U.S. Forest Service, hardly an ultra-green outfit, conducted a nationwide poll about public attitudes toward wilderness. The survey revealed that people wanted more wild land, and, perhaps surprisingly, not primarily for having fun. In fact, "recreation opportunities" were one of the least important benefits of wilderness reported in the survey, well behind "knowing it exists," or "scenic beauty," and even farther behind protecting the land for future generations and "- who would have dreamed it? "- "preserving ecosystems."


Could the American people be wilderness aesthetes? We\'ll never know unless some political faction has the courage to try to mobilize these lovers of public lands for their own sakes.

Jon Margolis, a longtime political analyst, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org).