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.