Wallace Stegner once wrote that the worst thing that can happen to a piece of land, short of coming into the hands of an unscrupulous developer, is to be left open to the unmanaged public.
His great fear seems to be coming true. With the downsizing of the federal workforce and the increasing mountain of unfunded federal regulations, our public lands are witnessing the kind of neglect that befell the thousands of victims of hurricane Katrina.
During a recent Senate hearing, while I was waiting to speak about the declining health of the West’s public lands, I heard a Western senator berate a Forest Service staffer for failing to work with ranchers who had grazing leases on federal land. To the official's credit, he reminded the senator that his employees did not choose to spend their days in government offices grinding out federal documents.
These natural resource managers, the agency official pointed out, wanted to be out on the land, exercising the stewardship skills they had learned.
That made me think about the last time I saw a Forest Service employee on a trail. I had to go back almost a decade, to the time when my wife and I chatted with a team of sawyers thinning a forest stand. Sure, I still see federal vehicles on paved roads, and even occasionally on gravel roads. But today’s public-land stewards more often park their trucks at Forest Service offices than at trailheads.
Is this what happens when, in the words of an influential conservative thinker, "you shrink government down to the size where you can drown it in the bathtub"?
Today, the ideologues who have made careers of berating the government are now in charge. Paradoxically, they find themselves having downsized government so it barely works, yet denying responsibility when it doesn’t work. It was not always this way. Once, we had leaders such as Teddy Roosevelt, who said proudly, "I am the steward of the public good."
I was thinking of these quirky twists of national sentiment recently, as a friend and I sawed through yet another downed lodgepole pine that blocked our horses on a trail through public land. Behind us lay the remains of the half-dozen trees we had already sawed. Scores more loomed ahead. We’d packed into designated wilderness on the Roosevelt National Forest in northern Colorado, and by the end of our trip it had become obvious that this national forest was going feral.
The good news is that this forest won’t continue to be a victim of neglect. Thanks to a group calling itself Poudre Wilderness Volunteers, 180 Colorado residents have taken up the cause of their national forest. By foot, horse, or mountain bike, volunteers patrol 43 trails on the Roosevelt National Forest, with about three-quarters of the routes through designated wilderness. They carry maps and answer questions from people they meet on the trail. They do the dirty work of picking up trash, and they take notes on trail damage. They’ve also trained a crew to open trails that have closed because government downsizing left no one to maintain them.
The idea was the brainchild of Chuck Bell, a retired diplomat, who recently worked as a seasonal ranger for the Roosevelt National Forest. In his three years with the agency, Bell says he saw the wilderness and recreation staff drop from three full-time rangers and 33 seasonals, to one full-time ranger and two seasonals. He also saw wilderness areas overused and abused, which led him to join with friends in organizing the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers.
Wallace Stegner anticipated local action such as this. He wrote that "The protection by these agencies is of course imperfect. All Americans, but especially Westerners whose backyard is at stake, need to ask themselves whose bureaus these should be. Half of the West is in their hands…"
On the Roosevelt National Forest, for the time being, we’ve seen an answer. It is almost a new form of outdoor recreation -- people volunteering to work on the public lands, ensuring that their forests don’t go feral. We can be grateful that these people are more worried about the health of our publicly owned lands than about what’s in it for them.