Can debunking the public lands myth lead us to an anthropocentric solution to the climate crisis and a new environmental movement?

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Understanding the natural world once held in high regard a sense of place and a perception of wild, untouched beauty. Walking into nature to find meaning and self-enlightenment is, in fact, fraught with negative capability. In the American West, the ingrained ideology of individualism and freedom runs headfirst into the reality of indigenous societies that were removed in order to make that ideology possible. 

Hiking through the mountains of central Colorado has been, for me, a rewarding and fulfilling pursuit. It is how I came to the Arkansas Valley by way of the Colorado Trail more than a decade ago. 

It is not always with such intent that I set out to hike with a destination or even an explicit purpose in mind.  I find myself frequently walking through the woods observing or simply being present in nature. Walking in this way can be a contemplative practice but one afforded through a place of white privilege.

Nowhere in my own writing is this privilege more evident than in a recent column I wrote for our local newspaper about how to walk in the woods. The cheeky guide to walking was intended to invite readers to be present in nature on public land in our own backyard, but the message was thick with unintended subjugation. 

Stepping off of a trail, a route known as the Ute Trail no less, I invoke the privilege of being able to roam freely through federal public land. The US Forest Service manages what is the southern Mosquito range and avails itself to citizens of the United States. The “protection” that federal land management offers is well known by environmentalist today but is weighted with misconception. Who is the land being protected from?

The Ute Trail region of the Mosquito Range borders Browns Canyon National Monument.  It was well known as indigenous land of the Tabouache Utes as evidenced by wikiup sites and altered trees that I often sought to find while hiking in the area. The frequent projectile points and other lithic scatter that glisten among the sand and sage are constant reminders of nations that once lived on this land before me. In my piece about walking in the woods, there was no mention of indigenous people except for things they left behind as if produced by the wilderness itself. 

By 1880 the Utes had been forcibly removed from Colorado leaving behind established routes and territory throughout the mountains and land in need of “protection.” The new designation of protected federal land by the U.S government ensured that through dispossession in the name of preservation they would not return. 

Dina Gilio-Whitaker points out the scathing connection between public land and the replication of colonial patterns of supremacy and conquest in her book As Long as the Grass Grows. After being vanquished from their land the environmental movement of the mid-twentieth century then celebrated the noble Indian by appropriating their ecological standing to an impossibly high standard. The environmental movement and colonialism are invariably linked thus making the attainment of environmental justice for native people more difficult

The highly romanticized version of the American West, to which I have subscribed, has long separated the wild (backcountry) from tom the not wild (frontcountry.) Wilderness in both the land management sense and the concept, are vessels to contain the natural world and the legal standing of indigenous people. 

As citizens and residents of the Arkansas Valley, it is imperative to acknowledge the past history of the land we now know and give proper regard. Our access to public land which we cherish in a county comprised of 88% public land comes at a price. 

The trail moving forward remains as uncertain as the one from which we came. Finding ways to best acknowledge the natural world and environment we inhabit presents new challenges. By focusing on the environmental missteps of the past through the lens of human experience are we placing too much weight on anthropocentrism in a crowded future world?

Looking toward a sustainable future do we accept an environmental ideology that values human utility? The greatest example of which is also the greatest American tragedy. Entire societies that were once based on reciprocity with the land have been systematically defeated, removed and sequestered in order to prop up individualism. Can we afford as a society to continue down this path?