Going Home to Public Lands

By Randy Scholfield Communications director for the Southwest region.

A couple weeks ago, my son and I decided on a last-minute camping outing and picked a popular area of high-country lakes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, a short 30-minute drive above Boulder. He’s going to China soon to teach for a year, and this was a chance to get away, catch our breath and compare notes on life.

Want to know if America’s public lands are valued? Just try camping in them during a summer weekend in Colorado. The Indian Peaks, just south of Rocky Mountain National Park, is one of the most heavily used backcountry areas in the lower 48 because of its proximity to a large urban population.

I grew up in Kansas, which has one of the lowest percentages of public lands in the nation—only 1.9 percent of the state’s lands. My family was lucky to have access to some private places to hunt and fish, but for many people, their options were limited. They were locked out of the larger landscape.

Here on Colorado’s Front Range, there’s an embarrassment of public land riches in your backyard: Rocky Mountain National Park, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Arapahoe and Roosevelt national forests, and on and on. You couldn’t explore it all in a lifetime. It gives a sense of infinite possibilities.

blog-rscholfield-photoMore than a century ago, John Muir extolled the virtues of wild nature as a place of renewal for city folk: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

Most Americans these days are urban or suburban dwellers. We need these places more than ever—as the summer crowds in public lands attest. When we arrived, we had to sit in a line of cars at the entrance for 10 minutes. Grouchiness ensued, and I nursed dark thoughts about how our public lands were being loved to death. We did manage to find a good tent site, in a developed campground near some hiking trails that led to a string of high-altitude lakes we wanted to explore and fish.

After setting up camp, we grabbed our rods and hit the trail and, for the first half-mile, walked bumper to bumper with a phalanx of chattering hikers. Again, I felt annoyed by the interlopers infesting our trail. But as we put trail behind us and the landscape opened up, my crabbiness gave way to fellow feeling.

These adventurers, with their daypacks, floppy hats and kids in tow, were there, like us, in search of their share of respite and adventure. In truth, this amazing place was big enough for all of us. Overhearing foreign accents, I even had a flash of patriotic pride: They had travelled far to experience this place that Americans enjoy as our common playground and birthright.

How lucky are we?

As the afternoon clouds built, we fished bracingly cold, sky-hued lakes and held small jewelled brookies in our hands before a late-afternoon squall jumped the jagged peaks and drove us back to camp.

That night, my son and I sat in camp amid the enclosing dark pines—a glittering canopy of stars overhead—and talked and laughed and connected in a way we hadn’t for a long time.

When he’s half-way around the world, I’ll remember this.