Concerning the first few steps on a path of little return.

Gray’s Sporting Journal
July 2015

One night about three decades ago, I showed up unannounced at my girlfriend’s apartment, charmed my way inside, then listened silently as she explained that she was carrying our first child. In a moment of panic, or perhaps clarity, I convinced her we should immediately reorganize our priorities. We’d get married, have a beautiful baby, sell most of what we owned, buy a pickup truck, and move west.

The echoes of our first night in a KOA campground outside Nashville remain etched in memory. Our seven-month-old daughter had an earache, and her wailing rang inside the aluminum truck topper like a 10-foot gong. Around midnight, with mother and daughter calmed, I dragged my sleeping bag onto a nearby picnic table, stretched out, and stared up at the Tennessee stars wondering what in Heaven’s name I had done.

Despite this uncertain beginning, the next four months were my Berlitz course in fatherhood, true love, and fly fishing. With no predetermined destination other than “West,” the trip was also my introduction to the lofty achievement of America’s public lands.

Imagine: By simple birthright I could gather stones into a fire ring beside a pristine stream thousands of miles from home, catch a few trout for dinner, and feed my family from the bounty of infinite forests, peaks, and rivers. The farther north through the Rockies we traveled, the wilder the land became. We had little money; but encamped beside a river in one national forest after another, we felt rich beyond compare.

Yet my intellectual appreciation of this public wealth was still rudimentary. I had volunteered one season after college in Shenandoah National Park, but the next few years found me wandering as far north as the Arctic Circle in Norway and, later, living on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights. No sooner had I turned the last page in Fodor’s Guide to Europe than a powerful desire to see my own country took possession. Neither meager finances nor impending fatherhood could curb that wanderlust, and by the time my wife and I finally hammered our stake in the glacial till of northwest Montana, my collection of forest service, national park, and state-land maps would have filled a steamer trunk.

Gradually, I also began to piece together an understanding of American public-lands structure and policy. At the height of the so-called Wise Use Movement, and on the heels of the Reagan-era Sagebrush Rebellion, in which many western states sought control or outright possession of federal lands within their boundaries, there were plenty of issues to consider, from rampant clear cutting to closing sawmills. For someone constitutionally averse to groupthink, it was sometimes confusing. The guy who believed in the intrinsic value of old-growth forests wasn’t usually the same guy who liked to kill and eat the forest inhabitants. Yet there I was. If spotted owls had been fair game, I probably would have had a recipe.

Somewhere along the way I ended up with a career that routinely jams my inbox with “action alerts” and occasionally gets me invited to conferences. Last year, for instance, at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership western media summit, I heard an interesting story from Ken Mayer, former director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. You may remember the protagonist of his narrative, Cliven Bundy, the one-time darling of state’s-rights advocates and TV minarchists who turned out to be just another five-gallon head in a ten-gallon hat.

For years Bundy’s cattle had roamed free on public lands, even though Bundy refused to pay grazing fees or even acknowledge the federal government. One year, a particularly ornery Bundy steer took a liking to a popular Nevada public dove field. About a week before opening day, a NDOW irrigation worker was charged, run down, and badly bruised by the longhorn. When NDOW asked Bundy to remove his rogue bull, recalls Mayer, “He told us to pound sand.” Not satisfied, Mayer crafted a news release stating that the dove season at that WMA would not open due to marauding cattle from a “well known area rancher.” He did not even mention the rancher’s name.

Within days, Mayer says Bundy called NDOW and “cried uncle,” agreeing to deal with the steer and pleading, “Just please stop the hunters from calling me.”

In the last year, at least nine western states have seen bills or proposals to move vast swaths of federal land into state ownership or management.

The point is, when sportsmen want something to happen, whether it’s hauling a load of bull off a Nevada dove field or stopping an open-pit copper mine in Alaska, our voice is powerful.

And as Bundy illustrates, the spirit of the Sagebrush Rebellion is alive and well. According to groups such as TRCP and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, it is now better funded and more organized than ever. In the last year, at least nine western states have seen bills or proposals to move vast swaths of federal land into state ownership or management.

Proponents of such transfers argue that the states can do a better job of managing public lands, citing everything from federal incompetence in fire suppression to the usurpation of mineral rights and potential tax revenue. At the federal level, transfer or sale of public lands is currently percolating in Congress as a way to reduce the national deficit.

Opponents point out that debt reduction shouldn’t be borne on the backs of sportsmen, that states can’t afford the fire and road-maintenance bills, and that state ownership is simply a cloak for further oil, gas, and mineral extraction, development of remaining wilderness, and eventual privatization of public lands. In other words, a state revenue engine that would steamroll sportsmen’s interests and access.

But our hunting and fishing heritage is rooted in lands that belong to all citizens. Our sporting traditions were not born around the hearth of a high-dollar lodge or on the shores of some foreign fish camp. We have no network of private or corporate wilderness set aside for broad public use. America’s national forests, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, seashores, and prairies are at the core of our sporting legacy, and the broader the public ownership, the brighter the future for legions of hunters and anglers who need a place to call their own.

So here it is three decades later. The wayward boy and his better half found great happiness. The beautiful baby is grown and married, now riding beside me on our annual Rocky Mountain return trip as I downshift into a 60-mile descent toward the Flathead Valley. Gliding past the magnificently vaulted sandstones of Marias Pass, we wind downhill through some of America’s most spectacular public lands. Glacier National Park is on the right. The Bob Marshall and Great Bear wildernesses flank the left. The surrounding Lewis and Clark National Forest and adjacent Flathead National Forest represent more than four million acres of room to roam, to hunt, to fish. To sniff daisies or ride your four-wheeler as individual fancy and the law allow.

In our case, we’d chased a late February snow storm to an obscure ski resort on the eastern edge of The Bob. Headed back west, we rolled past a trailhead sign that suddenly gave me flashbacks.

“Devil Crick,” I said, as the weathered brown Forest Service sign slipped past my window.

“What’s that?”

“Oh, a place I used to go hunting,” I mumbled, lost in the time I camped at the trailhead and had such an overwhelming sensation of “grizzly-ness” that I packed up and tucked tail homeward the next morning. I flashed on the day I tried to climb into nearby Reflector Basin and could get no farther than halfway up the steep hanging valley; and the time I helped track a wounded cow elk for two days before my partner caught up and mercifully laid her down; and the time up Devil Creek trail I sat in a snow bank in $5 military surplus wool pants, a pawn-shop .308 across my lap, silent in a cathedral of cedar and fir as I watched snowflakes the size of silver coins tilt and wink toward the ground.

I thought about going into more detail for my daughter, maybe explaining Department of Interior versus Agriculture, or at least trying to convey what the place meant to me. But how does one explain his history, reveal his fiber in such a casually sliding moment? How does one give complicated directions using a single degree of the compass? Long ago I found something indescribable in those woods, and I took away more than could ever be repaid.

So I said nothing. The moment passed as quickly as a wooden sign on an alpine highway, and with it the trailhead to a memory. ✦