What Westerners take for granted

“I never really considered the concept of public lands until I moved to Iowa.”

 

Julianne Couch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She writes now in Iowa, on the western edge of the Mississippi River.


I was born and raised in Kansas, the state that ranks number 50 when it comes to the amount of land owned by the state and federal government and open to public access. Now I live in Iowa, which ranks number 49.

In between, I lived 20 footloose years in expansive Wyoming, which comes in on the list at a heady number five. During my years living and writing in Wyoming, I traveled every highway, byway and backway and many a forest two-track. I hiked trails, got wet in some alpine lakes, traversed grasslands, crisscrossed a Native American reservation and watched antelope graze through a fence around an Air Force base.

Many of these areas were set aside for public ownership by the federal government. If I was careful about dodging cow pies, keeping my bearings in gas fields and wearing orange during hunting season, I could do almost anything I wanted on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land. I was grateful to U.S. presidents like Theodore Roosevelt for designating national parks and monuments, affirming the concept that some places should be preserved for the public.

But I’m embarrassed to admit that I never really considered the concept of public lands until I moved to Iowa. As a Westerner, I’d come to assume that we had the freedom of so much land simply because we deserved it. Surely, we were uncommonly attuned to the beauties of the natural world, vibrating to the flaring of the Milky Way in the summer night sky, or the wind whistling across vast stretches of sagebrush. I hate to admit it, but that’s what I thought. 

The Milky Way, seen over Devil's Tower in Wyoming.

It turns out that public and private lands were apportioned during the 19th and early 20th century largely in accordance with what the mostly white settlers wanted to use the land for. Land with plenty of rain and rich topsoil could yield crops. Other lands that were large enough to support grazing made useful ranch spreads. Land with lots of trees could be logged for timber, and land with mineral deposits could be mined. Lands that didn’t seem particularly useful were retained by the federal government, although they could still be leased if so desired.

The pattern of land ownership connected to natural resources and homesteading acts is complicated enough to fill a thundercloud of server farms. But now that I’m observing the question from outside the West, I can see how much access to even little bits of public land matters, regardless of how it came to exist.

In Iowa, the state’s native prairie and timber has been mostly subdued by tractors, combines and herbicides. Today we use our topsoil and precipitation to grow corn and soybeans to feed the cattle and hogs that in turn “feed the world.” These days, some of this farmland is disappearing under development.

I’m fortunate to live in a small town with a state park at its edge. In a good snow year, I can cross-country ski if I break my own trail. In summer, I can walk to the top of a 250-foot limestone bluff for a good view of a two-lane highway, a cornfield, and my small town on the banks of the braided-blue Mississippi River. There, I can find a blood-pressure-lowering peace that reminds me of how I felt walking in the deepest forests or broadest basins of the public-land West.

My current detour to the Midwest has taught me how central to my own happiness is the peace of natural places. I’ve managed to find it, on both sides of the 100th meridian. But it has taken some doing.

I stitch together the fragments of bottomland wildlife refuges and un-tillable river bluffs converted to state parks. I bind these public spaces together with the private places I visit by invitation: family farms, where I can swim in a pond or pull trout from a spring-fed creek; timbered acres, where I hunt for morel mushrooms; front porches, where I can watch pelicans and eagles soar over the Mississippi River. Still, I lack solitude. 

I’ve learned that people in private-property states crave the beauties of the natural world just as much as the rest of us do. That’s a hopeful thing, and it shows that access is worth fighting for — whether your state comes in first, last or someplace in between in its gift of public lands.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...