I went to the woods

May 01, 2012 11:31 am
Thoreau said he went to the woods because he “wished to live deliberately” and “see if I could not learn what it had to teach.”

I went with the much more modest goal of finding wildflowers, but I found a dead collie someone had, judging by the smell, tossed over the side of the road very recently.

I also found plenty of beer cans, plastic bottles, empty shot gun shells, and decaying plastic bags of trash.

I did help my partner find the wildflowers he needed to examine, photograph, and draw for a college course, but I left thinking about the dead collie and the way we use public lands in so many ways. “The woods,” in the case the Wallowa Whitman National Forest, had something to teach me.

I have taken three trips into the woods recently, in fact, and what the woods taught me is that some people speaking out about the U.S. Forest Service plan to close many existing roads in the national forest don’t understand the history of protecting public lands.

At political meetings and in letters columns, people have said in a variety of ways the land “belongs to us and we want to use it.” They say they want to pick berries, cut firewood, hunt, and do everything else they are entitled to do on their land.

They have cast their votes on the issue with their voices as well as with the tracks in mud left behind by their vehicles. That is perhaps as it should be.

But some of us want the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and all the other agencies to know that we are first and foremost interested in preserving the land and all that it maintains, the wildlife and the whole ecosystem.

When we talk about our “right” to access to lands we need to discuss how we access those lands. Many of the roads recommended for closure are in ill-repair and only easily used by those with four-wheel drive unless we want to build better roads.

That, of course, takes money and has an environmental impact.

The idea of “owning” land was an idea that bewildered many of the great American Indian thinkers of the past, but land ownership and profiting from it came to be considered such a fundamental part of the American dream at one time that the nation came close to losing its greatest wonders.

What we call Western expansion obliterated the top soil and eradicated thousands of species, and until people like John Muir were able to persuade the likes of Teddy Roosevelt that certain lands needed to be set aside, we were well on the way to letting investors stake claims on Zion, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the remaining forests.

It was a radical idea to say there were some places that were to be left alone.

Some of those public lands were opened up to certain kinds of uses. For a long time, no one saw what overgrazing privately-owned herds of cattle were doing to the soil on public rangeland. And for some time, no one saw that we needed to limit more extensively the for-profit logging on public lands.

More and more evidence has shown that not nearly enough of what we call public lands is left entirely pristine. Yes, we should be able to explore some of the public lands in our cars, but increasingly it is clear we have built too many roads. We do not have a right to drive easily to see every square inch of the land we claim we “own” and want to “use.”

The ecosystem requires that vast areas be left so natural that they can only be reached on foot by sturdy hikers.

The national forests began with the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which allowed the president to establish forest reserves from timber-covered public domain land.

Those first newly trained forestry professionals and the preservationists like John Muir who supported their efforts saved millions of acres of federal forest land for future generations.

They did it not exclusively to provide a place for those who live nearest the forests to have a place to dump their empty beer bottles or dead pets. They didn’t even do it exclusively so those same forest neighbors could have a place to drive, play and pick berries. Or to draw wildflowers.

They did it for everyone and for all species and for the planet. For, as Henry David Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”


Mike Shearer can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it