Saturday, October 16, 2010

Defining Access

Access can be one of the most divisive issues when it comes to public lands. Many people equate or translate roads directly to access. This is a broad misconception. Roads are a part of access but they are only a piece of the puzzle. Access is not only the means by which we see the country but more importantly the experience and the perception that we get when we connect with a certain place. It is not enough to just see the landscape from a designated vantage point, it is our ability to be a part of, and connect with, the land in a variety of ways that makes a place accessible.

I can see Red Rock from my office window but does that mean I have access to it? If roads are only open to licensed, street legal vehicles, is that access? If the managing agencies quit maintaining the roads to be left to the natural forces of nature to close the road, which relieve them of direct accountability for the road closure, are they providing access to public lands? If hundreds of thousands of acres are manipulated into the idea of “Wilderness” does that allow my family and the public access to these places?

One person’s narrow definition of what access is, confines all of us to experience that place as they believe we should. One person’s political definition of what a landscape is does not change the physical characteristics or the history of that place. What it does, is force the rest of us to conform to their beliefs right, wrong or indifferent. It forces us to see and experience this place as they believe we should be allowed to. Regulation that manipulates the reality to conform to a group’s specific interpretation of a place limits access to individuals to see and experience a place. Creating authoritarian regulation that strips away the Sense of Place, which makes each individual landscape throughout our public lands so diverse, robs a community and future generations of that place.

Agencies that stop maintaining roads on public lands with the hopes that natural forces will close them off, is not responsible public land management. Temporary road closures with vague rationale, no timelines and no communication to the public is not responsible land management. These elusive tactics applied over a long period of time eventually lead to restricted access and erodes public trust in the managing agencies.

What happens to a “designated road” when it cuts through a “potential habitat” for an endangered species like the Arizona Bell Vireo, Banded Gecko, Banded Gila Monster, Blue Grosbeak, Desert Iguana, Desert Night Lizard, Desert Tortoise, Great Basin Collared Lizard, large Spotted Leopard Lizard, peregrine Falcon, Phainopepla, Southern Desert Horned Lizard, Southwester Willow Flycatcher, Summer Tanger, Vermillion Flycatcher, Western Burrowing Owl, Western Chickwalla, Western Red Tailed Skunk, Yellow Billed Cuckoo? You know what will happen, the road will be closed. It will probably be a “temporary closure” while it gets studied but nonetheless a closure. What about other external forces like fire and flood damage? We have already seen road closures due to the above listed items.

Access embodies a wide range of elements including the physical landscape, the complete history of the area, the roads, the means by which we travel the roads and the feelings that a person has about the place they are visiting. It is the overall experience that a person has while exploring the back country that makes it accessible. To rush into legislative action without fully understanding what Gold Butte is, restricts access to it. Labeling Gold Butte with an ambiguous political designation, to pacify special interests, compounds the issues surrounding public lands, it does not solve them. Trying to build a solution on a faulty foundation manufactured for politics, not better public lands management will not succeed in the long term. If we are going to build a sustainable solution that maintains the characteristics of Gold Butte, while preserving access to it, the solution will have to start from the ground up. This can only be accomplished with active involvement by the local communities and collaboration with the local land management agency.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Creating a Responsible Environment

I am sure that all of us, at one point or another, have been in a situation where we felt like we were destined to fail. Maybe it was at work with a new policy that was implemented or a supervisor that was trying to prove a point. Maybe you were involved in an extracurricular activity where the demands of the group exceeded the potential of the group’s ability to actually reach their goal. Or maybe a new law was put into practice that, when applied in the real world, was hopeless at best. Often while out with my family enjoying Gods Country I can’t help but feel that much of our current policy and management practices in regards to public lands is creating an environment for people to fail to recreate responsibly.

o Restrooms
People have claimed that there is a problem with visitors to Whitney Pockets inappropriately using the site as a restroom facility. I agree that this is disgusting however there is a relatively easy solution to this problem. Instead of making this a big deal and using it for leverage to push your group’s agenda, focus your energy on fixing the problem. Build a facility. Whitney Pockets is the end of the oil and the gateway to Gold Butte. Instead of squandering time and resources on such things as BLM corrals and closing trails we should work to create and environment for people to recreate responsibly. If we create a situation for people to fail they will. I propose we focus our energy in positive means and work to build Gold Butte as a place where people and families can responsibly enjoy our greatest asset, public lands.

o Camping
I have heard, from both the BLM and other groups, that they report people camping illegally. Again to reiterate what I proposed for the restroom issue; Instead of making this a big deal and using it for leverage to push your own agenda, focus your energy on fixing the problem. Clearly define the areas where you want them to camp, educate and share maps and information with them and the problem is fixed. If you build it they will come.

o Roads & Trails
Roads are the means by which our public lands are controlled. If there is one issue that you can count on to get people stirred up it is roads. Roads have been closed at Gold Butte. Some are categorize as “Temporary Closures” and others have just been closed and marked as “Restored”. I am sure that in some people’s minds the road closures make sense and under certain rules and regulation it is even legal. However the current practice, by which these closures are carried out in my opinion, is where much of the contention is created. This combined with the new mantra of, “if the road is not marked open then it’s closed”, is quickly eroding what is left of the public’s trust in the BLM.
The current practice of temporary closures to roads with little or no information disseminated to the public is criminal. If there is a legitimate reason for a closure then there needs to be a legitimate plan to bring that road back open. Share with the public in an easy and transparent manner the details surrounding the management process. If people or agencies believe there is a problem with people creating new trails and going off-road we need to educate the users of where and which roads are open. Disseminate maps, mark trails and educate the users. Create an environment where the users feel a part of the process rather than against it and progress will be made.

o Cultural Sites
There has been damage to cultural and historic sites. Has the damage been over stated for peoples own agenda? I don’t know. However I truly believe that the overwhelming majority of people who use our public lands have no intention of purposely damaging our cultural sites. What is the remedy? Despite the message that special interest and the environmental lobby take to Washington it is not closing our public lands to the public. The answer is education, community stewardship and fostering a positive relationship where collaboration from all sides can take place. 

The public has the potential to be the greatest asset that public lands, as well as the agencies who manage our public lands, could ever have. Instead of alienating what could be its most powerful partner, our agencies should work with those who truly love public lands to foster a working relationship and build a true stewardship for public lands. The agencies will be able to better direct their funding to keep our greatest asset accessible and open for the public to enjoy. We need to provide a setting where we can freely and openly take the problems and complaints that people raise and then create practical policy that will resolve the issue. We need to create public lands policy that creates an environment where people can recreate responsibly.