The greatest recreational land on Earth is right here – and it belongs to all of us.

By Martin Hackworth

One of the things that makes the United States a wonderful place to be is a relatively large amount of public land. Public land is land that is reserved for and owned by all 318.9 million of us – and it makes our country fairly unique in the world. Though some countries do have large marine sanctuaries and some protected dry lands (often associated with national landmarks), large swaths of public land like those encountered in the Western United States (as a percentage of total area) are relatively rare. In the British Isles, most of Europe, much of Asia, the Middle East and in large swaths of Africa public land is almost nonexistent. In Idaho we are fortunate enough to live in the midst of public lands that are not only more expansive than some states east of the Mississippi, but some entire countries.

We’re fortunate to have public land as a plentiful resource. In Europe, until recently, what we’d consider a national park here would have been reserved as a playground for nobility and their friends. Because of the manner in which our country evolved, sans a noble class, we think of public land as a belonging to everyone. The concomitant quality of life is one of the things that makes this country the greatest in the world.

Even paradise, I suppose, has a few harps out of tune. Along that line I am often amazed at the confusion that some feel concerning the weight that their 0.0000003% ownership stake in public land carries. In a moral sense only Native Americans have any sort of proprietary claim to public land. That aside, public land is supposed to be for the public – all of the public. And while I am generally sympathetic with the need to set aside some public land for conservation, biodiversity, historic preservation and other purposes, I do not agree with the onerously restrictive interpretation of public land management increasingly favored by Federal agencies under pressure from environmental groups.

When we start managing public lands in a manner that protects them from the public instead of for the public I’m simply not in. The last time I checked there is not a single endangered species responsible for bearing the costs of maintaining public lands. That falls on us. Increasingly the public is being asked to pay for maintaining lands that they are, at least in my opinion, unreasonably restricted from using – at least if you subscribe to the notion that public lands are a shared resource. My Aunt Margaret has just as much to say about how public land is used as the most ardent environmental purist and she’d not able or inclined to walk into the heart of a Wilderness area to enjoy her stake in it.

My thinking on all of this has evolved over the years – though not as much as erstwhile friends imagine. I’m still not for the rape, pillage and plunder of wild lands. But it is true that when I was younger I mistakenly conflated the endangerment of species and environmental degradation with public access. But it’s become apparent to me that the most significant problem facing the Desert Tortoise, the Western Sage Grouse and other species in decline isn’t myself or my friends riding mountain bikes, dirt bikes or sleds on public land, it’s a planet with 7.4 billion human beings who build homes, farms, cities and industry, who consume energy (warming the environment) and create the infrastructure necessary to support the advancement of civilization. If the Virgin River Chub had opposable thumbs and a bilateral brain it would probably be out there doing the same thing.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. I am all for reasonable restrictions on travel in public lands because they are a unique resource worthy of responsible stewardship. I think that exactly how we accomplish this is a valid topic for discussion and debate. As far as I’m concerned, hikers, climbers, equestrians, skiers, mountain bikers, dirt bikers, people in jeeps and environmentalists all pay taxes and deserve a seat at the table – something that is usurped by the use of things like The Antiquities Act and the ESA to limit the use of public land without adequate public involvement. If I get to make my argument and I lose, that’s on me. It’s not even having a real shot to make the argument for my rights of access on lands I help pay to maintain that I find objectionable.

A lot of the current deference to some groups over others when it comes to stewardship of public land is not only based on dubious, ideologically-driven research but seems, at least to me, to be rooted in a form of environmental noble entitlement – something that’s supposed to be the antithesis of what we are as a nation. How else does one justify pushing the boundaries of The Antiquities Act of 1906 to confiscate nearly 2 million acres of land in Southern Utah over the strident objections of nearly everyone in the Intermountain West? Are a relatively few individuals thousands of miles away somehow the sole repositories of wisdom on all of this? I personally think not.

I think that the ultimate goal of many anti-access groups may well be to stealthily turn large swaths of the West into gigantic nature preserves where the rest of us are not welcome. Once the public is onto that plan, good luck with it. But in the interim, unless there is a really good reason to the contrary, open areas should be open to as many groups as possible, not as few as possible. It’s not up to you, me or anyone else to decide for everyone else which forms of recreational access are implicitly worthy and which are not. Our public lands are vast and I think that there is room out there for all of us so long as we are not enamored of noble entitlement.

Retired physicist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a writer, climber, motorcyclist, musician, the publisher of and the Executive Director of Coalition