Public-lands freedom fighter

  • Stephen Maurer in the Ojito Wilderness - New Mexico's newest wilderness area - 25 miles northwest of Albuquerque

    Wes Naman

Stephen Maurer


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Hungary, his native country; working to protect public lands in his adopted country.

"Don’t use (the phrase) ‘federal lands.’ They are ‘public lands.’ If it’s the government’s land, it belongs to them, and it’s not ours."

Almost 50 years ago, Stephen Maurer sat on a plane surrounded by fellow political refugees from Hungary, en route to the United States. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution — which lasted from Oct. 23 until Nov. 4 — he was among the men and women who unsuccessfully fought to overthrow Soviet occupation.

Maurer initially thought his stay in the United States would be short. But he ended up in Albuquerque in 1958, where he became one of the West’s most dedicated advocates for public lands. "For me, growing up in Communist Hungary, the public lands and the freedom they offer is mind-boggling," he says in his syncopated Hungarian accent. "They are so uniquely American."

As a student at the University of New Mexico in the late 1950s, Maurer worked on the D.H. Lawrence Ranch near Taos as a welder and sometime caretaker. He traveled throughout the region; at the Grand Canyon, he and his wife, Lisa, became friends with the Bass family, one of the first Anglo families to settle on the South Rim of the canyon.

Since 1989, Maurer has served as the special projects manager of the Albuquerque-based Public Lands Interpretive Association, a nonprofit that sells educational materials — such as river guidebooks and maps — for the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service. But his work for PLIA and his passion for backpacking, elk hunting and river running were not enough to satisfy his love for public lands.

So in 1999, Maurer started planning the American Frontiers Project. With the sponsorship of Honda, the National Geographic Society and other companies, and some support from the federal agencies — most notably the BLM — Maurer and his crew of volunteers mapped a route from Canada to Mexico that ran entirely across public lands. Two teams undertook the journey, one beginning in the north and the other in the south. For 60 days, they hiked, rafted, and rode horses, mountain bikes or ATVs. On Sept. 27, 2002, Public Lands Day, they converged in Utah’s Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

Today, Maurer speaks of his drive to organize the project: "If I could somehow give that message to the people who were born here who have all these freedoms and don’t know about public lands — then I could give something back."

More recently, Maurer had a suggestion for the Forest Service’s centennial: retracing the steps of the 1896 survey team assembled by the National Academy of Sciences, a team that included John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. "Wouldn’t it be cool to do a ‘State of the Forests’ on the 100th anniversary of the Forest Service?" he asks. He enthusiastically offered the use of trailers and equipment from the American Frontiers Project. The agency, however, was not interested.

In five decades of exploring the West, Maurer has met countless kindred spirits. At Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, Maurer and a friend met Jim Gilleece, the elderly caretaker of the Baker Ranch. The three shared coffee and talked about work. Gilleece explained that in the winter, he turns the cattle out on the "domain." That seemingly old-fashioned word struck Maurer, who wanted to know what Gilleece meant by it. To Maurer’s delight, he says, Gilleece answered: "Public Domain. That’s where you go hunting, or camping, or picking wildflowers, and ain’t nobody can tell you what to do. Because that’s land that belongs to me, and to you, and to everyone else."

The author is HCN’s Southwest editor, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

You Can Contact:

Public Lands Interpretive Association: 1-877-851-8946 505-345-9498

American Frontiers Project Website:

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