Paddle strokes broke the silence as a two-man canoe slid into view underneath the last hints of a ripe orange sunset. I stepped to the edge of the lake to lend a hand as my companions came to a stop, their headlamps the only artificial light visible for miles. There were no cabins, cottages or resorts here. Not a single other person. Then, from across the lake, a long lone howl lifted into the air, followed by three more. A chorus of mournful cries echoed through the silent landscape of rock, wood and water.
I was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) of Northeastern Minnesota — a 1.1 million acre expanse of boreal forest, pre-Cambrian rock and pristine lakes — for just this kind of experience. To hunt, fish, canoe and camp in a place still wild enough for wolves and to see for myself a landscape embroiled in one of the longest running debates our country has ever known: how to use our nation’s 640 million acres of shared public lands.
Americans are collective co-owners of a vast swath of federal public lands, including beloved national parks like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon and millions of acres of remote national forests, monuments, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. But as is the case with almost all other national issues, our public land system has been dogged by controversy since it’s creation nearly 150 years ago stuck in a viciously contested game of tug of war. On one end of the rope are those hoping to see these lands opened for extractive use, on the other are stakeholders vying for the conservation of these landscapes for recreation and wildlife.
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Today the BWCAW is at the heart of just such a contest. Up for debate is the fate of a series of proposed sulfide-ore copper mines on the edge of the wilderness area, which one side champions as a boon for the economy and the other derides as a serious threat to the landscape and watershed. This clash is representative of dozens of others ongoing throughout the United States today and many more that preceded it over the last century and a half.
In 1907, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt found himself in a similar situation. Our nation’s 26th president had come to find great solace in wild places as a young man exploring the American west. But he’d also seen first-hand just how quickly they can suffer, bearing witness to the devastation of big game populations and wild lands following the westward expansion of the nation during the 1800s.
When Roosevelt took office as president many years later, he took immediate action to protect the places he knew to be both valuable and threatened. In just his first year in office, Roosevelt protected more than 14 million acres of new forest reserves (now known as national forests) — landscapes that would be protected for perpetuity and managed for sustainable resource extraction, recreation, wildlife and clean water.
The logging industry, suddenly unable to take from the nation’s forests at will and without oversight, pushed back almost immediately. The result of the industry’s lobbying effort was an amendment to a must-pass spending bill that blocked the future creation of forest reserves without approval by congress. It appeared that big business had won the battle, but the president had other ideas. In the final hours leading up to his required signing of the bill, Roosevelt made the surprise move of boldly signing into existence 32 new national forests just before his ability to do so would be removed.
A short number of years later, another controversy erupted, this time around the creation of a hydroelectric dam in the midst of Yosemite National Park intended to power the city of San Francisco. This time industry did prevail and a pristine mountain valley stands flooded still today because of it. The push and pull of development versus recreation and conservation has continued ever since.
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The creation of Jackson Hole National Monument and other national parks in the 40s was followed by the damming of Glen Canyon in the 50s for hydropower. The Wilderness Act of the 60s was followed by the rollback of public land protections during the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 70s and 80s. And two new Utah national monuments created by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama saw their fates reversed when President Donald Trump came to office and slashed their borders by more than 50%.
These past debates and those still ongoing today, amount to a question of values. For some, America’s public lands are valued only as a piggy bank of natural resources. For others, the landscape amounts to more than just royalties. They are a refuge for wildlife, a reservoir for clean air and water and an opportunity for recreation and restoration.
President Trump needs to reexamine his priorities
The current administration's goal to make America "energy dominant" has led to a public land policy focused almost solely on the former. In President Trump's attempt to make the nation's public lands as profitable as possible, he has given the keys to America's shared landscape to the energy industry and signed off on some of the largest reductions of public land protections in our nation’s history. The tug of war has been yanked sharply in one direction.
This decision has led to the opening of a series of previously protected landscapes, such as the renowned Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to new drilling, mining or logging — threatening the pristine landscapes and wildlife populations that America's millions-strong recreation community depends on. The Trump administration has contended that this is in the name of economic growth and job creation, which no one can argue are not indeed important. The mistake is in thinking that the only way these lands can be made profitable is to develop them. In doing so, the president has ignored and substantially threatened another increasingly important economic sector: the $887 billion recreation economy which has recently been found to be a powerful economic engine in its own right. Comprising about 2% of the entire U.S. Gross Domestic Product, the outdoor recreation economy is larger than the mining, oil, and gas extraction industries (1.4%), employs 7.6 million Americans and is growing. According to a Bureau of Economic Analysis report, “Real gross output, compensation, and employment all grew faster in outdoor recreation than for the economy as a whole.”
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The Boundary Waters debate echoes this national dilemma. The BWCAW is the most visited wilderness area in the United States, attracting more than 150,000 visitors annually to explore its undeveloped landscape. Those visitors drive a robust tourism industry in Northeastern Minnesota that supports around 17,000 jobs and nearly $1 billion in sales annually. A recent study by Key Log Economics shows this recreation economy would be significantly threatened in the Boundary Waters should a significant pollution event occur. Per the study, 5,0666 to 22,791 jobs and between $402 million to $1.6 billion in lost annual income for the region would be at risk.
But to distill these places down to just dollars and cents misses the point President Theodore Roosevelt tried to make decades ago when he first advocated for public lands, of which I was reminded daily during my week in the Boundary Waters. It’s clear that the protection of our public landscapes, and not just the development of them, can drive economic gains. But these wild places also provide something more, something less tangible, but just as important as any commercially viable natural resource.
Hope. Solace. Peace. Quiet. For Americans today — over-worked, techno-dependent, hyper-stressed — these are the resources in lowest supply but highest demand.
Mark Kenyon is a hunter, conservationist, angler, explorer. He’s the author of "That Wild Country: An Epic Journey through the Past, Present, and Future of America's Public Lands," host of "Wired To Hunt Podcast" and MeatEater Inc. team member. Follow him on Twitter: @WiredToHunt
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Make sure they're here for our kids: America's public lands tug of war