At every Thanksgiving dinner, my family asks everyone around the table to say what they are thankful for. It puts new guests on the spot, so sometimes they just thank the hosts — an easy way out that makes it harder for everyone else struggling to come up with a good answer. I’ve been in that position, but this year I know what I’m thankful for.
That’s because, after several years away, I’m back in the West, living in western Colorado, close to millions of acres of public land. If the love of wide open spaces defines a Westerner, then our region gives us a lot to love.
Alaska, which is 95.8% public land, may be king of all states, with so much open space available to all, but Nevada is close at 87.8%, and Utah is next at 75.2%. Idaho ranks third at 70.4%, and Colorado has 43.3%, with most of the country west of the Continental Divide.
Until I moved back west, I hadn’t considered that public land was essential for something as basic as cutting firewood. But in most states without much available public land, firewood is an expensive proposition. Here, from May to October in Colorado, it’s time for the permit, which costs about $4 to $10 for a cord of wood. That’s enough to fill a full-size pickup bed four feet tall.
How much do you need? I’ve been told that three cords add up to “just getting by” in Montana or Wyoming, but true winter wealth is more like six cords. While you collect wood, you can also scout for a Christmas tree. It only requires an $8 permit – a world away from expensive conifers grown on a tree farm.
Author Dave Stiller’s advice for collecting firewood is to take blowdowns, or the slanted piles left by logging companies. When you’re done gathering, according to the Forest Service, “revisit and monitor the effects of your harvest…Become a steward of that place as you study the plants and how they respond.” In other words, think like an owner who cares about the land in the long run.
Patrick Hunter, a Sustainability Studies major at Colorado Mountain Community College in Carbondale, believes our public lands embody a “generational legacy” that has become a cornerstone of our democracy. From young to old, the die-hard fans of public lands are volunteers from nonprofit organizations that “adopt” a trail, build and advocate for them.
Political cartoonist Rob Pudim recounts hiking a trail he’d worked on for several summers and feeling a rush of possession: “I own this land,” he remembers thinking. In a way, he’s right. We own this land, even though it is managed—even though we rarely see a ranger—by federal agencies.
No one knows how many people have gone to public land for one solemn purpose: to throw the ashes of their dead into a stream or launch them into the air from a mountaintop, a practice permitted in the national forests of most western states. It forever connects someone to that place outdoors.
And for many of us, the best part of life can be what happens during a summer of camping, mushroom hunting, fishing, wildlife, or just “getting out there.” Some hunters also become wildlife and public lands advocates who champion public access.
Yet the damage we have done to public lands in the West is visible and remains – mining, drilling, dam building, nuclear bomb testing, dumping nuclear waste piles along rivers and other sensitive sites. Because of this legacy, the Superfund program, finally established in 1980, aims to restore these lands, some so altered that no real solution is possible.
Public land also serves as a link to modern history. Throughout the West, we can still see architectural marvels built by indigenous people hundreds of years ago. And ghost towns that were once small towns continue to fascinate us as we think about the economic shock that precipitated their abandonment.
Today we are experiencing a similar shock as increasing aridity changes how the West functions. Or doesn’t work. In the meantime, as we struggle to figure out what to do to adjust, at least I know what I’m going to say this Thanksgiving. I am eternally grateful for the public lands that give us room to breathe.
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to lively discussion about the West. He lives with his family in Durango, Colorado. Photo: Marston