“And then they came for me.” Or, more specifically, “Then they came for my land.”
That’s the way I look at the various assaults on our public lands just since the beginning of this year. First we have to defend the Great Smoky Mountains National Park against those, including Rep. Charles Taylor, who want to build a road through one of the most pristine sections of the park — the largest tract of mountain forest in the East. Then the administration wants to sell off assorted public lands — including parcels in both Pisgah and Nantahala national forests — to help fund rural schools. And now, Asheville’s Richmond Hill Park must be protected from those who want to turn the lovely trails into baseball fields.
These are not isolated incidents; they are part of a comprehensive attack on the whole concept of conserving land for noncompetitive recreational activities. The government is banking on its landowners — that’s all of us — being too busy with personal concerns to pay attention to what’s happening to our public lands.
And if you are paying attention, then they try to appeal to your compassionate nature. How can you be against better-funded rural schools? Shouldn’t children be able to play baseball in a structured environment instead of hanging out in the streets? Shouldn’t the descendants of Proctor and Hazel Creek residents be able to drive to their family cemeteries rather than having to walk? Who walks anyway?
To be sure, rural schools aren’t getting the money they need. But guess what? In another five years, those funds will be gone — and so will our precious public spaces.
Western North Carolina is blessed with many big tracts of public land: national and state forests as well as national, state and city parks. The rules vary, but all of them allow both walking and hiking.
There is a difference. Walking is what you do on the street to get somewhere, or because the doctor told you it’s healthy. It becomes a hike when you’re not on pavement and the walk is long enough that you have to carry water and may even need to duck into the bushes at some point — a minimum of two hours. Hikers expect to carry what they need on their backs and to take care of themselves in the woods; calling 911 is not an option. Outdoors enthusiasts also expect relief from air pollution and car noise, plus some modicum of solitude. Hiking has no spectators; everyone is a participant.
But this is hardly some small, elite group. Here in our area alone, the Southeastern Foot Trails Coalition, an alliance of 31 hiking clubs, counts more than 60,000 members. And according to a 2004 Outdoor Recreation Participation Study, a staggering 80.4 million Americans are anglers. Another 75.3 million like to hike, and 13.3 million backpack; 9.8 million cross-country ski, and 4.7 million snowshoe. The most serious hikers, most over 50 years old, belong to hiking clubs and hike week in, week out. Yet society places little value on outdoor recreation, especially when it’s enjoyed primarily by adults.
With few exceptions, such as Grandfather Mountain, hiking can be done only on public lands. There’s a key difference here: Private land belongs to individuals who can choose to sell it to the highest bidder or to preserve it in perpetuity. Public land, on the other hand, belongs to all of us. And our land needs to stay wooded and be left alone, with no extraneous roads, baseball fields or “For Sale” signs.
A lot of folks are already riled up about “outsiders” who come to Western North Carolina to buy or build on mountain peaks. But if you’re concerned about developers buying up private land to build gated communities plopped down on top of mountains, just wait and see what will happen if our national forests are sold off. Trust me, real-estate agents are standing by.
If anything, we should pass on to our children more than what we’ve inherited — and what a rich legacy we have. As the great American humorist and actor Will Rogers observed decades ago: “Buy land. They ain’t making any more of it!”
But at the very least, let’s hang on to what we have. To do any less would be nothing short of criminal.
[Asheville resident Danny Bernstein is an outdoors writer and hike leader for the Carolina Mountain Club.]
The U.S. Forest Service is accepting public comment on the proposed sale of national-forest lands until Monday, May 1. E-mail: SRS_Land_Sales@fs.fed.us; written comments: USDA Forest Service, SRS Comments, Lands 4S, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Mailstop 1124, Washington, D.C. 20250-0003.