We’re public land junkies. When we drove 20 hours from Arizona this summer to see the eclipse in totality in Idaho, we scavenged for an insanely picturesque slice of public land to pitch our tents. When we craved a swimming hole a few weeks later, we sniffed out a pretty badass little spot along 89-A, just north of Sedona, that more than satisfied our sense of adventure.
When we want to fish, we find a pull-off by the lake. When we want to hike, we venture out. When we want to hunt, we settle into an area that has no restrictions or rules.
And this weekend, when we wanted to explore, with two kids and two dogs, it was public land that allowed us to create new memories while taking a trek through a canyon that didn’t require a fee to enter. It was just public. It was there for us.
And, it needs to stay that way. Here’s why:
That’s why. We came across that sign as we left the canyon and went looking for other spots to explore. When we pulled in to a spot that offers access to the lake, we were met with that sign. And once we read it, things started to click.
That’s why, even on a cool but cloudless day, the lake seemed so empty. That’s why there weren’t any boats on the water, or any people, at all really, near the shore.
There were a few smart anglers who were fishing off the little cape, one we’ve fished from before, but they were only able to do that because the spot is public land. It isn’t part of a designated park area.
A government shutdown, which has an untold ripple effect throughout the country, certainly does underscore the need to protect public land. Because, when the government is shut down, it means workers are furloughed until Congress can do its job. It affects agencies throughout the country, and trickles down to almost anything that functions with the help of federal funding.
And when those workers furloughed, there’s no one to unlock the welcome gate. Or open the restrooms. Or collect trash. Or manage the park, this one in particular – a stunning lake surrounded by mountains — for the people who come to enjoy it.
News reports of the situation explain that this shutdown, unlike previous ones (12 all told since 1981), will not close national parks and monuments. In fact, the reports say that folks will still be “able to visit” those places during the shutdown.
By “visit,” do they mean drive all the way there, along a washboard, cliffside road, protected by an incredibly rudimentary guardrail, and sit outside the gate? Because if that’s what they mean, then they’re technically correct. Yes, you can visit. But, you can’t go in.
The whole thing got us a little unsettled. So, we dialed up the website for Yosemite National Park, just to see. And we got this message.
Sure, the web guy or gal is deemed non-essential, we get that. So, that person is furloughed. But the fine print says that “some parks” have “areas” that remain “accessible,” but that could change at any moment. And, here’s the kicker, “some are closed completely.”
And if you do get to go, understand that there will be no National Park Service-provided services like restrooms, trash collection, facilities or road maintenance. And, no fee collection.
So, that’s as clear as mud. And that one sign wasn’t the only one we saw. Every designated area we came to along our route back had the same sign, stuck to the entrance gate with duct tape.
Digging even further, we checked the website for Tonto National Forest, where we were. And read something similar to what we found on Yosemite’s site, since both are subject to federal funding. Except, it didn’t mention that parks were actually unstaffed and closed, as we witnessed. Or that law enforcement may be stationed outside the gates.
While the implications of the shutdown ticked us off, it didn’t ruin our day. Because, public land was always our destination. We still climbed down a slick rockface, carrying the dogs and helping the kids. We still got to explore a canyon that no doubt roars with flood waters during monsoon season. We still got to see the water stains that run down the sides of the towering cliffs above us. We still explored a cave or two, crunched through some leaves, watched as the dogs inhaled their sensory overwhelm and marveled at the size of the boulders we were plotting around.
Because that spot was public. It wasn’t privy to a government shutdown. It didn’t have hours of operation. It didn’t require a fee.
The more public land that is sold, the more precious these opportunities become. It is an incredibly slippery slope, no pun intended, especially considering the landscape we explored on that adventure.
While some places require government intervention and regulation to keep them pristine and protect them from exploitation, most areas don’t. Because when they require that government involvement, or when they are sold and managed, that “national” or “state” or “private” designation oftentimes comes with a gate. That locks. And someone has the keys to that lock.
And that someone doesn’t work during a government shutdown. Which means that locked gate puts the outdoors on hold.
And this should never be on hold.