Are we in the Wilderness Yet?

For years now I’ve been telling myself that this place is my home. Colorado is my home. In that statement is a nugget of a critical nature. Here is where I attribute comfort and contentment. Here is where I grew up and a landscape that is largely responsible for the development of a land ethic in me. Here is, as fractured as they can be, I have a story book of memories. Its where I’ve wanted to return ever since I was unfortunate or stupid enough to leave.

So why, after skiing through the falling snow tonight, I am forced to ask myself can’t I find those things any longer? Kicking and huffing through the nearly knee deep powder on my way around the back side of Town Loop and up Brush Creek I found myself grouching at every car that I could hear flying up or down Highway 135. I’m flabbergasted when I round the corner of the trail only to find that the HOA of Skyway has decreed that their miles of walks must be plowed to the asphalt. I find myself counting the number of SUVs pulling long lines of snow machines up county road 738 as if there’s only minutes left to get in that last sled ride before the end of days. And when I pass house after house, dark because they are not occupied, only to find a line of “Do Not Trespass” signs which pinch my ingress between the plowed road the right and virgin, untrammeled golf course snow to the left I’m ready to scream.

Now that I’ve returned to the house and put my ski gear up to dry I find that I’m sad and sort of hollow. How can I be sad and hollow here? A thought occurred to me after I gave up and turned around. Most of my life I’ve watched as this invisible line has slowly migrated over much of the world that used to bring me so much joy. It separates the Rich Man’s Playground from Every Man’s Paradise.

As a Backcountry Wilderness Guard for the Forest Service during the summers of my college education I was fully aware of a single, wealthy individual buying up the bottom lands along the North, Middle and South Fork of the White River which bordered much of the wilderness I patrolled. As his agents worked overtime to unseat families who had occupied that land for generations the easements across that private land also started to disappear. Fancy, expensive fences showed up out the morning fog. Oddly enough too, trailer parks and plots of cheap housing started showing up in Meeker and Rifle. Someone has to serve.

But this isn’t about the vast disparity of the very few ultra wealthy who move into this place and take everything over and the very many increasingly poor who can’t afford to live here. That disparity is obvious and frankly its been beaten to death. If it doesn’t change there’s nothing I can do about it, I’m completely powerless in this situation.

This is about a land ethic or what is missing. As a kid growing up, after the Monkey Wrench Gang perhaps to tone down my excitement over Hayduke’s response to a lack of land ethic, my Dad handed me a copy of Aldo Leapolds A Sand County Almanac. I read pretty much everything and anything my Dad would hand to me, and in this way he helped shape the adult that I became. Here is a quote that I think is fitting from Sand County.

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

This is, in some sense, a sort of deep ecology. It is, and has remained since reading this book, a sort of guiding principle. I own no land other than my fraction of the public lands of this nation. But this is how I chose to live my life, by “including soils, waters, plants, and animals” in my community. So how should I feel when I’m excluded from that community by often arbitrary or solely economic concerns which work to increase value through exclusion? Pinched?

Playgrounds are nice to have around, ask Aral. They serve a very specific purpose, usually the mental and physical enrichment of children in relative safety. They are however, by their very nature exclusive, and because of this there is no land ethic in their creation. They are also terminal in nature. As they are used they become increasingly decrepit and less safe. They require a constant input of energy just to stay as they were when they were completed.

Now imagine a world that does not see the playground as something that is limited to children. Rather this world and a single animal within its larger community is convinced that any place they chose to be is and should be as safe and as fun as a playground. Ah, but the thrills of the swing and the excitement a slide used to engender just isn’t there any longer. They need more!

And more! And these “pastimes” become increasingly exclusive. They don’t consider the water in a place. Or the animals that make their living from a place. And even the soil from a place may be replaced just to serve the needs of the playground and the few who can afford access.

When a place starts to create playgrounds like this it is no longer a community, and thus it lacks a land ethic. I can see and understand how one perspective in a situation like this might be “Hey, I have this land (through some magic of circumstance). How can I employ it to my economic advantage?” Aldo would have recognized the influence economics has on land decisions, but he also understood that our long term well being cannot be separated from the quality of our environment and thus the composition of the community that lives within its wider bounds.

And that brings me to my second observation. People who own second or recreational housing cause a crisis of community. All those dark houses represent a phenomenal use of materials and energy. They displace animals, use water even when unoccupied, and ruin the soils upon which they sit. Collectively these structures carve up the existent communities. And perhaps most concerning they leave holes in the human communities where they exist. Even when these people are resident they are more often than not removed from the community that grows up because of proximity.

And then there is the problem of the playground. When an economy and thus its dependent communities is developed largely around the idea of providing play time to people compromises must be struck between wild nature and those who choose to play. Some forms of play are considerably more impacting than others.

And those that have far less impact on the community upon which they tread tend to be considerably more inclusive while not disrupting or only temporally disrupting. As illustrated, just about anyone can learn to cross country ski. Very few people can or will ever enjoy rock crawling, yet everywhere its practiced its impact will disrupt the ecology of the place and future use of the area. XC skiing preserves the value of the place, rock crawling uses it and discards it as if it had no value.

And ultimately that’s it. Perhaps I’ve naively idealized “Colorado” for most of my life. Last summer I witnessed a large diesel truck pulling a 5th-wheel trailer, pulling a boat, pulling a trailer full of ORVs. Something like this, its turns out, can be encouraged. What I’m looking for, what I miss, is a community that discourages this sort of behavior which is only concerned with an economic exchange of the value of its land for a joy ride. I want to find a place and a people that will walk softly on the earth and act like a part of the environment which supports them.

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