Live and Let Love Public Lands

By Ian Nemelka

While I was working for the United States Senate, I once found myself speaking to a woman from Helper, Utah regarding multiple use on public lands. She, a member of a local conservation  advocacy group, became particularly upset with me when I affirmed that these same lands should remain open to ATVs and mountain bikes. She claimed that both these activities were elitist, harmed the environment, and scared her trail horses. Now, ignoring the obvious irony in her retort, I actually did manage to pull an important question from the conversation.

Why is it that we feel that our way of experiencing the environment is superior to others?

It is particularly difficult to rid oneself of bias when your favorite fishing hole, hiking trail, or picnic spot has been overrun by “non-regulars.” A paddleboard on a reservoir typically filled with canoes, or a snowboarder on what used to be an exclusively skiing mountain? Outrageous! Most of these spaces are public land, however, and the tragedy of the commons is all too well exemplified within their bounds. Public and private interests seem to be at war for the sake of pleasure, preservation, or profit. Each side claiming theirs to be the side of reason and proper stewardship while accusing the other as ignorant, uncaring, even evil. What is to be done?

In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus, an English scholar, hypothesized that because the rate of population growth outpaced the rate of conventional food production, mass starvation would be rampant within a century. Obviously and fortunately, that did not occur. Instead, food production and quality of life increased dramatically. Why? Malthus, whether by design or on accident, did not take into account human ingenuity and innovation. The increasing population rate turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The more people there are, the higher the likelihood that more of them will be inventors, engineers, craftsmen, scientists, and entrepreneurs who take it upon themselves to solve the world’s problems.

Perhaps this increasing rate of recreationalists, and resulting diversity of preference, can be a tool against the perceived tragedy of the commons on public lands. In spite of all these warring factions, the incentive to find the best method of management is the same to all users regardless of whether you climb, bike, fish, hunt, or hike. Multiple use can work. In fact, it is the best way to inspire activism and innovation among perhaps some of the most unlikely advocates. Restricting reasonable activities on public lands only goes to distance the average American from the outdoors and eventually create private getaways for the privileged few. In essence, the more people who have a reason to care for the environment, the more people who will be willing to find entrepreneurial solutions to the problems which plague the environment.

Year after year, there are those who try and restrict any activity (besides their prefered) under the guise of “conservation.” There is not a single hobby every American enjoys or is even capable of participating in. We are all different, and thus enjoy different things. It stands to reason then that there is not a single encompassing solution to the problems which result from a diversity of activities. Both federal and state governments should not be picking winners and losers in these debates. Simply forbidding those things we personally deem unacceptable will only lead to further alienation of the general public and widespread misunderstanding of the true nature of the environment.

Do not let fear of the unlikely and ruinous, prevent the actualization of the much more likely and extraordinary. Taxpayers and citizens have the right to experience public lands in their own way. By spending more time outdoors participating in their preferred activities they will become better stewards of the land.  The best solution to our public land needs is to expose as many people as possible to the beauty and peace that comes with being in the outdoors. Only then will we discover the innovations needed to solve our public land challenges. Exclusivity is not the answer.

Strata is committed to helping people experience the outdoors and manage the environment in the most effective and innovative ways conceivable. Check out Strata’s research on public lands and other sources here: