Saturday, September 22, 2018

The current status of our public lands

September 22 marks both the first day of fall and National Public Lands Day, a day to recognize the importance and value of our vast web of open public lands from coast to coast, set aside for conservation and recreation. 

In an effort to encourage people to get outside and explore these great places of natural and historical significance, the National Park Service and other federal land management agencies are waiving admission fees and welcoming volunteers. Find an event near you to lend a helping hand or even just bring a trash bag with you on your hike to collect any garbage found along the trail. Give back through stewardship and help protect these sacred lands we're so fortunate to have access to, and I sincerely hope you're reaching into that closet, grabbing a flannel, and going for a hike today.

I usually strive to keep politics off my blog, but in a case like this, some politics needs addressing. Especially because it is a bipartisan issue with offenders and defenders in both parties. Now more than ever, public lands are in the spotlight both on state and federal levels. Under the current administration, acres of land purposely reserved for no development, mining, or logging to preserve their significant habitats, are sadly being sold-off, eliminated, and opened up to commercial and industrial destruction. Pretty much, destroyed
[Image source: The New York Times]
For example, two of our country's most stunning national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante were drastically reduced in size in the name of "making great business." Heavenly and expansive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah where I've hiked, was set aside by President Clinton in 1996 and months ago had its more than 1.8 million acres slashed by 45%. These are cowardly acts, acts that would anger our fathers of conservation like Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. Our public lands also lack the proper attention and fiscal support to keep them running and maintained. The National Park Service has a tremendously high and expensive backlog of almost $12.6 billion in maintenance that needs addressing and funding. It looks as if Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other Republican leaders are making strides to fix this issue. Well done and please do, because I've instilled confidence in you now.

We're struggling here in Wisconsin too, with our gem of a state parks system underfunded due to an absence of any kind of taxpayer support. Three years ago, more than $4.5 million was cut in state funding towards the parks system. Not a single cent of taxpayer dollars, not even one penny goes towards support our state parks, forests, and recreation areas. As a result, entrance and camping fees have gone up, services cut or limited, and park improvement or restoration projects like repairing heavily worn trails and prescribed fire to eliminate invasive species has been put aside on the back burner. A sad reality, when considering just how much tourism revenue each and every state park brings in to its surrounding community. The gas stations, the restaurants, the gear outfitters, the neighbor cutting firewood and selling it for $5 a bundle just before you get into the park, that's all supported by those traveling near and far to visit a state park.

But we can help out and we can continue to cherish and preserve these special places through stewardship, mindfulness in the outdoors, and continuing to recreate in meaningful ways that have little impact. We can stay on trails and practice Leave No Trace, donate to non-profits like friends groups (Friends of ___ State Park, Friends of ____ National Park) who work hard to advocate and bring only the best to these public lands. We can teach and share with others the importance of getting out into our public lands and appreciating all they have to offer. We can use our voices to contact members of congress, our local senators, and natural resources officials who oversee these beloved parks, to show our support or concern over hot-topic public lands issues.

"LWCF has supported more than 42,000 state and local projects. … Investments in this program help our nation’s outdoor recreation, conservation and preservation businesses, which support millions of American jobs and contribute $887 billion annually to the economy.”-Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina

In eight days, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is on a course to run until congress reauthorizes continued funding for it. It's been around for 54 years, hasn't cost anything to taxpayers, and has been a paramount player in keeping many of our public lands accessible, maintained, preserved, and enjoyable for all. Places like state and national parks, significant historic sites like battlefields from the Civil War, parks in busy cities where green space is limited, protected wilderness areas that harbor endangered or at-risk species, and lengthy established hiking trails like the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. I'm hoping, desperately hoping something magical happens and congress restarts this proven conservation program again. Many senators, on both sides, are going to bat for it and urging full funding. I've sat down and written to my senator, have you?