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Holding the line: Property rights and public lands

Holding the line

“The best thing we have learned from nearly five hundred years of contact with the American wilderness is restraint, the willingness to stay our hand; to visit such places for our souls’ good…”     ~ Wallace Stenger

Teddy Roosevelt and America’s first Forester, Gifford Pinchot, believed that conservation was a cause vital to the United States’ remaining a land of equals. Acting on that belief, they did the unthinkable – they set aside large swaths of the American landscape as public land, designating National Parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges, thus protecting both land and resources from the rich and powerful, the industrialists and capitalists who would “not leave the land as it is, who would only mar it.”

It was anathema to their class and status, both coming from wealthy and privileged Eastern families. The issue wasn’t necessarily class warfare; however; and it wasn’t just a battle for land or money, though those certainly played a part. It was a battle between two different mentalities sprouting from the same root that came to a head over deeply held yet conflicting American principles: the right to property and the right to liberty.

In order to have true liberty, or free-will, one must be on equal footing with everyone else. Inequality diminishes liberty. If one’s right to vote is contingent on owning property and there are laws that say certain groups cannot own property, then those groups are not on equal footing with their fellow countrymen and hence their free-will, or liberty, is hindered. This is an example of unequal treatment under the law in that some are granted privileges while others are excluded from them.

Equality is inherently an issue of access: access to an education, to vote, to own property, to employment, to knowledge and information, to the internet, to medical care, etc. The list goes on and on. Not having access to any of these leaves people in the dark ages.

Unfortunately the principle of property rights has been used as a tool to deny access to others for centuries and its use for those ends is still pursued today. The thing to understand about owning property; however, and this must be emphasized, is that property rights imply the freedom to act. Having title to property amounts to legal proof of ownership; property rights, on the other hand, amount to the owner’s possession of rights to perform certain physical actions on that property (1). In other words, property rights allow or restrict actions depending on whether you are the owner or guest of the property.

When public lands were created and given to the American people, what we got possession of was not the physical land, but the rights to perform certain actions on those lands. We were given access and equal footing with everyone else who was given those rights. It was a radical idea that rivals colonial America’s win against Britain for most unbelievable success story in American history.

But success can be short lived. The same forces working against Roosevelt and Pinchot are alive and well today. The same mentality is trying to take our property rights away, be it to the states, industry, or private citizens. The people pushing this agenda are not only trying to take public lands, they are trying to wrestle away our possession of property rights, and thus access and freedom to perform physical actions on those lands. If they succeed we will lose more than the ability to hunt and fish, to hike and bike, to backpack and kayak; we will cease to be a nation of equals and this is why:

Not everyone will have access to the pristine, natural beauty found on public lands. Places outside the noise and clatter of cities with clean air and water; places of spiritual significance, solitude and space will belong only to those who have access to them. Our ability to escape to cool and quiet alpine air to heal from an angry and violent world or to walk in the footsteps of past generations in places unchanged for hundreds of years will be gone or off limits, open only to those with the money and property rights to be there.

It’s not a partisan issue, though it is the GOP pushing this agenda. If you don’t like the presidential candidates, remember what Teddy Roosevelt was able to do and imagine the opposite. Remember also that 80 percent of Congress is up for re-election. They control the purse strings that can fund or starve management of our lands, as well as the pen to pass laws that undermine or enhance our access to them.

Holding lands in trust for future generations was a great moral issue 100 years ago and it’s still a great moral issue today. Right now, even if we do not own a house, we have property rights to land that grants us access to engage in a host of physical activities where we can feel as at home in them as anyone else.

Most of our public lands exist in the West, and the West has always been synonymous with freedom – freedom to enter what the Irish officer in the British Army, William F. Butler described in 1872:

“The great ocean itself does not present more infinite variety than does this prairie-ocean of which we speak. In winter, a dazzling surface of purest snow; in early summer, a vast expanse of grass and pale pink roses, in autumn too often a wild sea of raging fire.

No ocean or water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets, no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie; one feels the stillness, and hears the silence, the wail of the prowling wolf makes the voice of solitude audible, the stars look down through infinite silence upon a silence almost as intense. One saw here the world as it had taken shape and form from the hands of the creator.”

So long as the public keeps vigilant watch over the land, deep pockets of the powerful will not prevail. But keeping watch entails more than using the land for recreation, it presupposes a duty to act as sentries and guardians ready to sound the alarm when under attack. It would be a mistake to assume that our public lands and our access to them will always be there. Nothing in politics is written in stone. In this arena, those who care the most, win.

(1) Foundation for Economic Education, Gary Pecquet. Private Property and Government under the Constitution.



The Fine Line Between Being Safe and Living in Fear

Crawford Arch, Zion National Park

Crawford Arch, Zion National Park

Originally published by the Philadelphia Rock Gym

Crawford Arch is a thin spindle of an arch. From the valley floor it looks like a toothpick leaning against the massive rock formation it stems from. Until someone told me you could hike to it, it never occurred to me that it was possible to see it up close. But from that moment on, I wanted to see it for myself.

That day came in March. A group of us met up in the pre-dawn of a cold morning and set out on what would be a 12 hour day hike up to the arch and back down. We made our way in the warm glow of the morning sun, enjoying the solitude and beauty of the backcounty. Upon arriving, the arch was even more spectacular than I had imagined. It looked like the rock wall just sprouted a root. The arch looks delicate, fragile – but when you get to the top of it, it’s a good 10 feet across. I made my way out to where the arch starts to curve and sat down, the first of the group to perch atop it. I waved to my husband to join me for a photo.

Crawford Arch

View upon arrival

He climbed up and then hunched down, not sure he wanted to join me out there questioning whether it would hold his weight. My friend who was taking the photo for us, not realizing that all he had to do was touch the screen of my phone for a photo, and the fact that the sound was off and it doesn’t show a screen shot once a photo has been taken, caught the entire sequence of me cajoling my husband out next to me.

There is a somewhat funny shot of me pointing at the spot next to me and him looking at me with doubt. I posted this photo on Facebook, joking that he was a chicken. A friend of mine responded with a comment that two of her friends had suffered accidents at this arch; one had died and the other suffered body crushing injuries after falling. She then said, “Not worth it.”

I have many fears, but fear of heights is not one of them. This lack of fear comes in handy for outdoor adventure that includes high elevations and sheer drop-offs like climbing, canyoneering, and peak bagging. But I do have different fears and a healthy sense of danger. If something makes me nervous, I will not push it. At no time was I nervous on that arch. As I read my friend’s comment I couldn’t help wondering what her friends had been doing the moment before they fell. Were they goofing around or doing something risky? It’s possible. In my mind, the only thing that would make the arch dangerous is a lack of humility and safety.

Life is inherently risky. It is easy to assign danger and risk to activities like climbing because it “looks” dangerous, but we could die in a car accident on the way to the crag. Obviously my friend suffered from these accidents and has determined that hiking to Crawford Arch is not worth it. And maybe it’s not. But in my mind, there is a fine line between being safe and living in fear. Life is a delicate and exquisite thing, but the pay off comes in spending it. A spider would never catch its prey without the intricate workmanship of its fragile, yet strong web.

We will all die someday, that’s 100 percent guaranteed. No one escapes death. We can live in mortal fear of how that death with come about or we can choose to focus on what we want and live while we can. As William Wallace said in Braveheart, “Everyone dies. But not everyone really lives.”

Life amounts to the decisions we make. Will I climb or decline to try because I might look stupid if I can’t do it? Will I go for that peak or just look at it from the ground? One decision is not better than the other, but your life will amount to the decisions you made; and that culmination will not matter to the world, but to you. In the secret recess of your mind will you wonder, “What if I had tried?” Not everyone has a burning desire to test their limits, but some do, and if that is you, answer the nagging question, “Do I have what it takes?” Swallow your pride and try. Be willing to change who you are now for who you want to become tomorrow.

It’s such a cliché to say that life is short, but if you are older like I am, that phrase has taken on some real meaning, and if you are young, you will discover just how true it is in time. We never know how long we have. If you have an aching desire to try something, take the steps to achieve it. No one climbed Half Dome before learning how to climb first. Overcoming fear is a process like anything else, but as you learn and grow and become stronger, the fear abates and turns into knowledge, confidence, and possibly expertise.

In order to achieve great things we must dare great things, even if the beginning step is putting on a harness and climbing a wall at the climbing gym, because each step is a personal victory. Everyone has to start somewhere. For me, it was getting over my fear of looking stupid. My first time climbing I climbed with a 5.14 climber that I didn’t know very well. I was sweating and nervous and terrified. But I did it. I was 36. That decision changed my life.

Ultimately the worth of attempting something challenging or dangerous is personal. My friend decided that the risks of seeing an arch 2,000 feet up the side of a mountain are not worth it. It was worth it to me. The climb to that arch, the 300 foot rappel to get down, the wind whipping through my hair and an entire golden canyon beneath my feet are the moments I live for. For me, life is most beautiful in those moments of decision when I dare to live.

This is a guest blog I wrote for the Philadelphia Rock Gym. If you are ever in the Philadelphia area, check’m out:

First view

First view

Looking down

Looking down

Blown away

Blown away

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