by Todd Waldron
There are thousands of miles of three to five-strand barb wire fences delineating the boundary lines that run between America’s great public and private forest lands. I’ve been straddling them my entire life.
I am a hunter and an angler, a private-land forestry professional and a passionate public land advocate. America’s 360 million acres of non-industrial private forestlands (NIPF) are located mostly in the East, South and Lake States. They provide clean water, critical habitat, carbon sequestration and forest products that benefit everyone in society.
America’s 640 million acres of public lands are distributed mostly across the American West and Alaska – they are some of our greatest landscape treasures and also provide an incredible array of ecosystem services. Like the NIPF forests of the East, they offer priceless amenities such as open space, clean water, recreation, and quality of life. Public lands represent an incredible democratic opportunity for all Americans and are here for everyone to use and enjoy. Maintaining our public land heritage is just as deeply important to the fabric of American life as upholding private property rights and ownership.
My very earliest memories of connecting with the outdoors were spent on both private and public lands. Many weekends were dedicated to cutting firewood and piling brush on my grandfather’s 46-acre woodlot just outside of the village of North Creek in the Adirondack Mountains. He purchased the woodlot in 1959 and harvested firewood each year for the long arduous winters to come. He was usually a year or two ahead on wood. My cousins and I spent many summer weekends with him and my grandmother – ferrying to town in the truck bed of their forest green-colored 1960s GMC pickup – bellowing out ’99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” like a gypsy choir on a heaped up stage of hand-split maple and ash.
That 46-acre woodlot turned out to mean far more to me than just a wood pile. I remember sitting under a tree we called the “Big Pine” with my grandfather during the hunting seasons of my youth – huddled up in oversized red and black plaid wool, his horned rimmed glasses partially fogged over in the cold morning air. We eagerly awaited the ‘sh-sh-sh-sh’ sound in the crunchy hardwood leaves that might signal an oncoming deer. Most of the time there was no deer. My dad would hunt his way up over the hemlock ridge from the Horse Sheds and we would go on to the next drive. That was decades ago. My grandfather and that big pine are gone now. I was 8 years old and didn’t understand what he was trying to teach me – its finally coming within reach.
When we weren’t cutting firewood on weekends, we were tramping down muddy, rocky trails with our 10’ aluminum john boat. We nearly wore the oars off of that boat during the countless trout fishing expeditions on public land ponds which speckled the Adirondack landscape like the innumerable pink dapples of Salvelinus fontanalis. Anybody growing up in the Adirondacks never forgets the distinct pungent smell of Woodsman’s bug dope. We’d watch the metronome-like rhythm of the rod as the water slapped up against the john boat’s prow, the rod tip pulsing to the dance of the copper-colored Lake Clear wobbler below, waiting impatiently for the rod to jerk violently down to the rippled surface of the cold black water that held small and powerful trout.
These are the stories of my childhood. They influenced my big decisions in life – including an eventual career path that now spans 23 years in the forestry and land management profession. Over this time, I’ve worked with several inspiring colleagues, companies & landowners who have dedicated their entire lives to private land forest stewardship and to upholding Leopold’s land ethic. While I’ve seen plenty of high-grading, fragmentation, and loss of access to hunting land, it is truly a privilege to work with colleagues & landowners who ‘get it’. I’m talking about people who are conservationists and don’t just look at the immediate bottom line and who take sustainable forestry and the concept of passing ‘it down’ as serious as we do. They’re out there.
So, why does someone who has spent their entire professional career working in the private land arena care so much about public lands advocacy – and why does a self-professed public land advocate care so much about helping people buy and manage private forestland?
America’s 640 million acres of public lands belong to all Americans. I am a public landowner and so is everyone else, including future generations who depend on us to be their voice.
My deepest dreams always seem to gravitate toward wild places – lonesome ridges, remote rim-rock canyons, endless open skies and honking-geese. Many of these places are on public land and have names like Brooktrout Lake, Siamese Ponds, Bob Marshall, Gila River and the Missouri Breaks.
Wildlife knows no political boundaries – travel corridors, habitat, winter range often occur on both public and private lands, and both need to be well-stewarded in order for landscape ecosystems to function properly. Complex conservation solutions require everyone at the table – public and private landowners, their organizations and their voice.
Across much of the iconic American West, our great public lands provide critical recreational access for hunters and anglers. This is absolutely imperative if we’re going to pass our conservation heritage down to future generations. I had the chance to listen for deer with my grandfather on his small wood lot in the East. This formative experience in the West would have most likely happened on public lands. The future of hunting depends upon having good access for outdoor opportunities and plenty of habitat, in other words, in having public lands.
If you can find a path forward in this straddling concept – that we can simultaneously promote healthy working forests while fighting just as passionately to keep public lands in public hands, here are some things you can do to that might help:
Support local outdoor community projects – Our small community recently started a hiking program called the Chester Challenge. This is a project that includes both cooperating private landowners and town property. The goal is to get families out in the woods on several scenic hikes throughout town. Its convenient, close to home and an easy gateway to get kids connected with nature close to home.
Support federal and state funding for programs like CRP and EQIP which help private landowners manage critical habitat that ultimately benefits wildlife and all Americans.
Develop relationships across the aisles – at first glance it may seem entirely ancillary for a public land advocate to want to help support or get involved with private landowner stewardship efforts. It may seem tangential for a private landowner to join a public lands conservation group like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) or others. Follow Nike’s advice and just do it. Look for opportunities to work together and to identify and support commonalities that benefit everyone. You just might meet some great people with deep connections to the outdoors whose personal stories aren’t much different than ours.
By Maxwell Dougan
It may seem counterintuitive, but the more death you stumble upon in the woods, the higher your chances are of encountering abundant life. Though anecdotal, these pictures, all from the same drainage and the same month of the year, convey the stark contrast between the beauties and realities of exploring elk habitat with a healthy predator/prey dynamic.
Something that lingers in my mind as I’m watching elk in the hills is the basic understanding that mountain lion are undeniably present. This is generally true throughout the western states; if elk are present, so are lions. The landscape is littered with evidence of their proximity to you.
I sat across the canyon with my binoculars, thoroughly intrigued with the interactions unfolding in front of me. An elk herd of around fifty head and six mule deer were practically rubbing noses with one another. It was the first time I was able to observe both animals side by side. To those unfamiliar, I’ll attempt to explain their size difference as such; if deer are your average golden retriever, then elk are great danes.
One particular cow chewing her cud must’ve caught my scent. Her head shot up and began scanning the hillside in front of her and locked eyes with me. One by one, like prairie dogs protruding from their burrows, every single elk picked up their head and stared directly at me, a quarter mile away. The mule deer couldn’t pick up what the cows were putting down, as if some sort of language barrier required a few moments of translation. It wasn’t until the elk began finding their way out of the canyon over the opposite ridge on a well beaten trail that the deer followed suit, choosing an alternate route uphill.
I stayed put for some time as I watched them disappear over the horizon, one cow keeping watch as the others passed by, and then gave chase as the last cow was out of sight. I switch-backed down into the canyon, across a seasonal creek which was swollen over its banks from spring melt, through the dogwood and willows, floribundas and cottonwood, and up the rocky hillside. I went to the bowl where the herd was just feeding where I found a spinal column and skull on a blanket of ravaged fur. This scene can be rather unsettling. Not for the apparent reason of standing over a large mammal’s skeleton torn asunder, but because of the way that fur is often dispersed at a kill site, as if the animal was pressurized with air until it combusted. Intrigued by things of this nature, I picked up the skull and turned it over to see what kind of shape it was in. I got my answer. Maggots and a handful of other insects were taking care of the remaining brain matter. An amber puss began oozing from the eye socket, carrying with it an odor so offensive my eyes watered. The skull was placed back to rest for the scavengers to squabble over.
Up beyond the ridgetop, the land plateaued and I settled down again under a small stand of ponderosa pines, flushing mourning doves as I pushed my way through the maze of sagebrush. A grouse was perched somewhere above me, sending out its hauntingly beautiful call. Again, I observed the elk herd as they slowly worked across the landscape, feeding on bunchgrass. The sun began to fade behind the endless conifers to the west.
My hike up was over with, and I was happy to have a down hill amble back to the forest road.
Now, I know it wasn’t there when I parked, because I would’ve walked right by it, but about fifty feet from the car lay a dying rattlesnake. It had been run over toward the tail end of its body, and yellow jackets, a swarm of hundreds, had begun devouring the serpent from the inside out as it fought for its final breaths.
Like I said, a stark contrast.