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Front Page » August 19, 2003 » Opinion » "The Lure of Vast Public Land"
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"The Lure of Vast Public Land"

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Professor of Geography, BYU

I recently returned from a short visit to Central America�Guatemala and Honduras. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This globe is full of places to see, and my list of desired destinations seems to grow bigger every time I travel. But despite my constant plans for travel, I always end up coming back to the western U.S. With all the wonderful places in the world, I often ask myself why don't I live somewhere else?

There are some obvious reasons involving family and work that keep me returning. For instance on this most recent trip I would have liked to continue on to Ecuador and Costa Rica with my wife, but instead I hopped on a plane in Guatemala City in order to pick my three sons up from helpful relatives.

But my sons don't always draw me back; last year they were with me traveling by train in Europe for two weeks before living in Tanzania for three months. But at the end of the summer I had to return to work.

Now I could get a new job. The boys have shown they easily adjust to new places. So why not move to England where I have more friends than in my own neighborhood? For that matter I may have more friends in Chad, Africa. What about Budapest where the city parks seem designed for children? Or Korea, Indonesia, France, or any of the numerous other places I have enjoyed around the globe?

I don't have the entire answer as to why I live where I do, but I have realized that a large part of it is because here in the western U.S. we have an abundance of wide-open public land. And increasingly this is a rare gift on our planet.

I can get away for a hike in hundreds of places; there are trails, washes, slot canyons�whatever I want I have numerous choices.

While living in England I went for several car rides into the Derbyshire Hills, where great numbers of people come to enjoy the spectacular scenery and spend a few days hiking amongst and within private property. The English have a great tradition that grants public access even to the rolling pasturelands divided by hedges and stone walls. But if you prefer to leave the world behind, it is difficult to do it in England.

Other places have what I enjoy as well. New Zealand is a river runner's dream, and my memories of going off a 20 foot waterfall in a raft or kayaking on the south island make me wonder if I wouldn't mind spending more time there. I also remember fondly hiking in the forest reserve on Kilimanjaro, throwing a boomerang with a couple of French guys along the mostly dry Logone River bed in Southern Chad. I've enjoyed hiking deep into the forests of central Borneo, and to the top of Snowdon in northern Wales.

And for shear splendor of scenery it's tough to beat the valleys and peaks of Rwanda, a train ride through Austria, or witnessing the fiery eruption of Mount Fuego from your hotel room balcony in Antigua. And what about the drive to Hana on Maui's windward coast? And if you want to see wildlife and can't make it to the Serengeti, you should head for Kangaroo Island off the southern coast of Australia. And did I mention the spectacular scene of Bujagali falls near the source of the White Nile?

My point here is that the world is full of wonderful places, and only a very small fraction of them are in the western U.S. In fact if I were forced to make a top 10 list of places that have awed me the most I don't know if anything nearby would be included.

But here we have something unique�thousands of square miles of public land. And I'm not thinking of the national parks, although these are wonderful and becoming increasingly common worldwide. Instead I'm thinking of the much vaster areas managed by the BLM and the forest service. We're surrounded by such areas, and it would take a lifetime to experience them all. Nobody "owns" them, and you won't find villages and fields everywhere you go.

Perhaps the reason why there is so much contentious debate over public lands is because there are a lot of us out there who realize what we have, despite differing perceptions and ideologies. I don't get too concerned about these disparate views since I am convinced that, at their core, most people understand our rare gift and want to protect it.

Meanwhile I am going to Alaska for a couple of weeks. And since this is the one place with even more public land�I may not return.

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August 19, 2003
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