When people ask me why I moved westward shortly after college, I generally say something to the effect of “to be near vast tracts of public land.” As a lifelong outdoor recreationist, a committed environmentalist, and someone who just likes to have space to let her thoughts and feelings roam, I’ve never really questioned where I belong. I’ve also become an outspoken champion of our nation’s impressively forward-thinking, if severely flawed, public land system. It permits anyone, regardless of race, color, creed, or income level to explore and enjoy natural beauty while protecting and preserving land for current non-human residents and future generations.
I’ve been on the east coast for the last month, where public land is scarce. Human beings have lived in high-density population centers here for longer, and there’s simply more of our species here. This makes both land conservation and recreation access a lot more challenging, and has contributed to the increasing presence of non-governmental conservation strategies.
My father is the President and a 15-year member of a private fishing club in Canadensis, PA called the Bright Creek Park Association (BCPA). Situated in the Pocono Mountains just west of the Delaware Water Gap, this 5000 acre tract of land was purchased by a group of Philadelphia fishermen in 1890 to protect and preserve the integrity of the then-deteriorating Brodhead River watershed. Since I’ve been on the east coast, I’ve had the chance to spend some time there as his guest, wandering the land and listening to tales of the club’s history and dreams for its future.
These folks are truly committed to the conservation of this ecosystem, and are clearly connected to this land on a soul level. They know every pool on Bright Creek: which fish tend to hang out in which spot under which conditions, which insects hatch where and when, and which trees are aging and may need support to ensure that the banks stay shady. They add rocks to certain pools to improve fish habitat, and assiduously work to prevent the invasion of pernicious non-native aquatic algae (such as didymo) by making sure that all members and guests fish in waders and boots that are used only in their stream. They take measures to protect against the scourge of gypsy moths and mitigate the damage their oak trees have experienced by past epidemics. They meticulously record the number, type, size, and health of the fish they catch (and the game they kill during hunting season) and share their information with the local fish and game officials. And, of course, they catch and release the majority of their fish – especially the older natives. Most of all, these “member-owners” can never sell their property. Never. That means they “own” something from which they cannot reap two of the benefits of ownership – sale at a profit and the ability to pass an asset onto their heirs. They do receive the benefit of use, but it’s shared use. The club makes management decisions collectively (an ironically socialist form of governance given the political leanings of many of the members!), and members share access to the buildings and grounds.
The current discussion around the clubhouse fireplace centers on another neighbor’s desire to sell his large parcel of native deciduous forest at a market price. Right now, the nearest housing to BCPA’s land is two or three miles from the club’s gated entrance. Members would like to see that continue to be the case, but neither the state nor any individual member has the significant funds necessary to compete with those a developer might offer. So they’re getting creative. They’re talking to the state, the Nature Conservancy, and the other area clubs, as well as discussing amongst themselves financial transactions that could allow group ownership of the land and significant tax breaks to the purchasers. There’s a good chance they’ll make something happen and keep the McMansions on 5-acre lots away.
There are quite a few private hunting and fishing clubs in the eastern Poconos, and it’s largely because of them that the area’s forest and river ecosystems remain intact in an era where people have actually begun to commute to New York City from eastern Pennsylvania (crazy, I know). Together with the state lands in the area, these clubs preserve the headwaters of Philadelphia’s drinking water supply, and regularly receive grants from non-profit agencies to maintain their lands because of this special role they serve.
And…there are a couple of issues that bother my liberal conscience here. Private clubs have steep membership fees that make belonging to them inaccessible to most people. At the same time, if you’re an avid fisherperson looking for a public river access point in Monroe County, PA, your options are fairly limited. My father’s club is all male. Although they have all but eliminated their predecessors’ restrictions on women visiting and using the resource, women currently cannot be members. The ethnic diversity of the membership is limited – but then, so is the diversity of the fly-fishing population. Much of the club’s efforts to improve fishing and hunting habitat are self-serving, in that better habitat ensures more successful recreation. That argument could be used against all of us, of course. I want open space for open space’s sake, but I also want to make sure it exists for me to hike, bike, kayak, and ski through. That nags at me sometimes.
A few years ago I read Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” and was struck by one of his explanations for the striking differences between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two economically divergent countries on the island of Hispañola. He attributed the preservation of the DR’s forest and river resources – significant contributors to the nation’s relatively strong economy and quality of life – to a despotic Dominican dictator’s seizure of forested community watershed land over a century ago. Do the ends justify the means? I’m not sure. The human rights abuses under that administration were egregious. But the ends sure have been helpful to the nation.
I’m certainly not comparing private fishing clubs to Dominican dictators; I mean only to point out that conservation can take place through interesting and complicated channels. In fact, all channels may well be complicated.
I worked in my precious public land system (the United States Forest Service in southern Utah and the BLM in the California desert) for a year after I graduated from college. I found the management structures and procedures of these agencies to be so inefficient that I vowed never to work for them again. NEPA, the National Environmental Protection Act, the precious brainchild of 1970’s environmentalists, makes it incredibly time and resource-intensive to get anything done on public lands – including the creation of Wilderness Areas – even while effectively ensuring against their overuse and destruction. Every time I deal with a federal land agency, I wonder if I will see the results of my advocacy in my lifetime. Meanwhile, my father and his fellow members might successfully set aside 1000 more acres of deciduous forest and watershed habitat by the end of the year.
Like I said, it’s just not that easy to see which is the “better” path. It may well be that there is no better path, and that a diversity of approaches to conservation is our best hope for preserving the small chunks of wild land we still have in this nation populated by increasingly consumptive individuals.
One thing about which I am certain is that time spent in nature and effort expended working for the integrity of ecosystems create a powerful connection between us and the natural world of which we are, like it or not, very much a part. Not only does this connection soothe the tormented human soul, it increases our sensitivity to our fellow inhabitants of this planet and the flow of life that began long before us and will hopefully last for at least a little while after us. I’m inclined to support any structure or system that fosters this relationship, even if it’s accompanied by messy ethical conundrums.
Messy ethical conundrums may well be the cost of being human. They’re certainly part and parcel of cultivating relationships with the natural world in 2015. I’m hoping that carefully considering them serves both our ends and our means.