Keep the Fire Lit: Inspiring Stories of America’s Public Lands

Jul 18, 2016

Outdoor writer, Scott Willoughby

Text of speech given to the Outdoor Writers Association 2016 meeting by Scott Willoughby, outdoor writer.

When our generous sponsors at The Wilderness Society first asked me to interrupt your casual dinner party with a serious discussion of the Public Lands Takeover issue that has sparked so much acrimony in the outdoors community lately, my initial reaction was probably pretty similar to a lot of yours: Who? (Me?)

But I do know several folks here, and some of you even know me back. So I’m not going to apologize just yet. Besides, even though I don’t have my own TV show, I’m not a politician, celebrity or high-level agency official, I eventually realized that the main reason they invited me up here is because I’m one of you. Which is to say, I’m an outdoor Writer, and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and it’s a great privilege to be here in Billings with this terrific group.

For those of you I haven't had the good fortune of meeting yet this weekend, but who may have seen me juggling conference sessions with my wife and kids while taking the whole tribe on cross-country vacation in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, we are the Griswolds. Only we’re not headed to Wally World. We’re headed to Yellowstone — America’s first National Park and an icon of our national public lands. Yes, it’s July. But what can I say? My daughter wants to see a real moose.

In reality, my name is Scott Willoughby, and these days I guess I’m probably best known as the “former” Outdoors Editor of The Denver Post. And somewhat sadly, I suppose I can lay claim to the dubious title of the “final” Outdoors Editor at The Denver Post, since the position was eliminated last fall and doesn’t show much hope for resurrection after the most recent round of buyouts at the paper last month eliminated another 25 reporters, editors and photographers from the newsroom. (But that’s a topic for another day.)

Meanwhile, a lot of you probably remember my somewhat legendary predecessor, Charlie Meyers, who passed away almost 7 years ago now, but whose legacy lives on in so many ways. Those of you who knew Charlie know well that he was a champion of public land access and, in particular, its significance within the world of hunting and fishing. Given his stature during what could really be considered the Golden Age of Outdoor Writing and certainly newspapers, Charlie was invited to fish and hunt pretty much anywhere he may have wanted — the most exclusive private trout waters, plush waterfowl hunting blinds, and more than likely a few trophy elk ranches that he never talked about.

And, in fact, to my knowledge, he eschewed them all, opting instead to put in his time for the requisite preference points to hunt one of the state’s top elk units,  slog it out among the sky busters on opening day of duck season or ply the public trout waters of the Colorado, Arkansas or South Platte rivers (where he was subsequently memorialized years after dubbing a particularly productive portion of the South Platte as the “Dream Stream”).

And when he wrote (and photographed), he wrote of those precious public places with the eloquence and respect that made people like me want to go out and experience them for myself. Not just experience them, but somehow contribute to them, recognizing that you were better for having the experience and maybe try in some way to reciprocate that enhancement.

Charlie introduced me to his personal sort of Everyman ethos and the benefits provided by Colorado’s wealth of public land access through his writing long before he extended the personal invitation to contribute a weekly column of my own to The Denver Post. And while I may never be recognized as the hunting and fishing laureate he became over the course of 40 years in Colorado, I’d like to think I helped people forget that good ol’ Louisiana sportsman wrote about the cold mountain sport of skiing first. That was the job he offered me while he focused on the more meaty side of his preferred outdoor pursuits.

The thing is that the underlying theme of outdoor sports in a place like Colorado is somewhat universal, in that the vast majority of them occur on federally managed public lands, whether your talking about hunting, fishing, skiing, camping, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, rafting, rock climbing, paragliding, canyoneering or just about any of the infinite number of adventures you might consider doing in our little corner of the Rocky Mountains. Nearly 40 percent of the entire state is made up of public lands, and the spot where I live — at the crux of Hardscrabble Mountain and Bellyache Ridge in Eagle County — is more than 80 percent public land, including 930 square miles of the White River National Forest that serve as home to the ski resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek.

Based on my dedication to making a life in the snow and elk country of Western Slope Colorado, Charlie may have recognized it in me even before I did, but the reality of my life and career as an outdoor writer is rooted in the admission that I am an addict. (It is Colorado after all.) I’ve been hooked on public lands so long I can’t even remember my first fix. What I do know is that they are a part of me, both personally and professionally. It’s where I play, where I raise my family, and I’ve made a career of writing about them — and their countless multiple uses — for more than 20 years now.

So much for the “who,” or at least far as the question pertains to me. As journalists, writers, storytellers and frankly, curious people, I’m guessing we all had the same set of follow-up questions: What, when, where, why and how? Starting with, “What can this guy who already admitted he isn’t smart enough to be on TV or good-looking enough to go into politics tell me about this whole public lands takeover issue that I don’t already know?”

Excellent question. And because I realize the people in this room already know enough about this topic to fill several newspapers, magazines and websites, I’ll spare you the gritty details and gloom of it all. Besides, that’s the beauty of journalism — I’ve had the good fortune of meeting and talking to people who are a lot smarter and more important than me for a long time. So I’m going to let them tell you.

First, the lay of the land. I had a chance to sit down with Dan Ashe recently, the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dan Ashe is an interesting guy. I’d describe him as an optimistic pragmatist — the kind of guy you want in charge when the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is taken over by armed militants. Who, in spite of his anger, manages to find a positive outcome in one of the darkest periods for the agency he’s been a part of for more than a quarter century.

He’s also the kind of guy who will disarm you with a smile as he tells you the biggest problems facing the combined Sportsmen’s, Outdoors and Conservation community today. And take note here — in Ashe’s mind, as I believe it should be in the minds of everyone gathered here this weekend, it is ALL ONE COMMUNITY. The prevailing disfunction within that community, unfortunately, is its primary problem. Another is a direct symptom of that disfunction, and that is the growing irrelevance of conservation in America.

I’m not as good at smiling when I say that as Dan is, mostly because it pains me to recognize that reality and how much harder it makes this Public Lands Takeover battle to fight.

And it is a fight. A big one. And based on history, it’s not going away. On a planet of 7.3 Billion resource-sucking humans (and counting) the best the Sportsmen/Outdoors/Conservation Community can hope for is a draw. Simply put, more of us (people) means less of everything else — habitat, wildlife, water, biodiversity, space. So if we have to choose our battle, the fight to preserve the wild, open spaces our forefathers had the uniquely American wisdom to set aside as our national Public Lands is a damn good place to start. The only thing getting any wilder is the extremes some people will go to steal public property.

Here’s Dan Ashe’s takeaway after Malheur:

“This is an ideology and they are waging a campaign. They know what they’re doing. It’s closely related to this effort to divest millions of acres from the federal estate. And it’s not about giving it to the states so the states can be better managers of recreational resources. It’s about converting that land and that resource to capital, to profit. So this community needs to recognize that. We have to get smarter. We have to have a better strategy than they have. Because right now, they’re winning. They’re doing what the conservation community used to do well — they’re putting together a long ground game, and they are changing the minds of voters on this issue. We have to get back to those basics. We have to be better at it than they are.”

Unfortunately, this is where the issue of community disfunction kicks in. While the traditions of hunting and fishing have brought us conservation visionaries like Wilderness Society co-founder Aldo Leopold and President Teddy Roosevelt, not all sportsmen fall into that category. Rod and gun ownership don’t necessarily equate to a passion for healthy habitat for fish and wildlife, and all too often we sportsmen are distracted and divided by issues like “overturning the Second Amendment” that have no true basis in reality. We point fingers at birders and backpackers and blame them for not “paying their fair share” for habitat conservation through user fees or excise taxes like hunters and anglers do. Heck, we still have fly fishermen and spin fishermen looking sideways at each other while they’re casting into the same lake for the same fish.

Instead, we should be focused on the common ground we share and the benefits of a unified, positive message. There are countless Americans out there with vivid memories of amazing and unique experiences on public lands, stories woven into the very fabric of our nation in the tradition of campfire tales, legendary hunts or old fishing yarns. Despite our differences, that inspired energy needs to be directed at the common cause.

There are some hurdles, however. The simple reality is that it’s difficult to discuss this issue without appearing partisan. There’s plenty of opposition to public land takeover from voters in both parties, but support for it comes entirely from Republican lawmakers (and the corporations that fund them). The DC-based Center for American Progress counted at least 44 bills or amendments filed by members of Congress that attempted to remove or undercut protections for parks and public lands between January 2013 and March 2016 — all of them sponsored by Republicans. Among the most egregious to emerge recently is Alaskan Congressman Don Young’s H.R. 3650, which allows states to claim up to 2 million acres of public National Forest lands for timber and other extractive development while shutting the public out. The bill passed committee with the support of all but one Republican member, while every Democrat opposed it.

In May, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, attempted to include a provision that would have enabled the sale and private development of the popular Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico as part of the fiscal relief package approved for the territory. Thankfully the measure was defeated and removed. But as I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, the Republican National Committee recently voted to include language calling on Congress to immediately transfer all federal lands to the states as part of the GOP’s official platform.

I only bring all this up to make a point. Well, a couple points. But the main one is just how divisive this issue is in spite of the overwhelming public sentiment in favor of our current system of public lands and the proven economic benefits and quality of life improvements they provide. The other is a demonstration of how quickly people shut down or tune out at the mere mention of politics, and particularly when they feel like their political allegiances are under attack.

The thing is, there is nothing conservative about this takeover issue. It’s fiscally reckless to dismantle a system that currently supports some $646 billion (that’s with 9 zeros) in outdoor recreation spending every year. Six-point-one (6.1) million Americans rely on the outdoor industry for employment — jobs that won’t ever be outsourced. More than $80 million in tax revenue is spread among communities across the country.

There’s absolutely no evidence that state’s can manage these public lands any better than the federal government, and actually quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, especially when it comes to folks like you and me. Outdoor recreation is far more restricted on state lands than America’s public lands. In my home state of Colorado, more than 80 percent of state lands are closed to hunting, for example. Recreational shooting is prohibited on a similar majority of state lands in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Camping is restricted in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and here in Montana. Campfires too.

That last one is maybe a good thing, since once state budgets are overwhelmed by wildfires (which cost the Forest Service $1.7 Billion in 2015 alone) or flood or some other form of economic strife, the “For Sale” signs will go up and we watch states like Utah, Idaho, Wyoming or Colorado cash in on the physical representation of more than 200 years of American Democracy to cover the losses. We’re essentially betting against any future ability for our nation to find enough common ground to improve land management for the benefit of the masses rather than an elite few.

Here’s what my neighbor, state Senator Kerry Donovan, had to say about it in The Denver Post after her bill establishing Public Lands Day in Colorado was signed by the governor last month:

“It’s easy to go inflammatory on this. Will the Maroon Bells be sold off? No. We’re not going to sell off these incredible vistas and the most valuable assets. But would public lands across the state start getting chunked off without a lot of people being able to keep track of it? Absolutely. And who’s going to be the highest bidder? Not some land-conservation non-profit.”

I’d like to point out here that if we’ve already got folks like Rob Bishop lining up to sell off a Caribbean gem like Vieques that supports a profitable tourism economy, there’s really no guarantee that the Maroon Bells or Missouri Breaks won’t be next. Clearly, nothing is out of bounds.

Whether directly or indirectly, I think that covers most of the “who, what, when, where and why.” But the $646 Billion question remains: How?

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Ashe believes a good first step is to take a page from President Ronald Reagan’s playbook, his so-called “11th Amendment” — Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican — and apply it to the conservation community (“Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow conservation agency”). Then he suggests taking it a step farther:

“We have to have zero tolerance for politicians at every level of government — federal, state and local — who support divestiture of Public Lands. We have to just say ‘No’ to that, and we won’t support anyone else who supports divestiture of Public Land. We can’t let them call themselves a ‘sportsman’ if they support divestiture of the Public Lands that sportsmen depend upon, and the future of sportsmanship is going to increasingly depend upon. You can’t let them get away with that. We need a different professional ethic that unites us as a community. We cannot tolerate this internal dissension within our community.”

So as outdoor writers, what’s our role? The reality is we’ve all got skin in the game — not only as sportsmen and outdoor recreation lovers, but as Americans who essentially make our living off the land. And no matter your perspective on the politics or concerns over objectivity, the fact remains that this is a story that deserves to be told. Needs to be told. And as Ashe pointed out, there is a strategic campaign already well underway that isn’t really interested in the truth getting in the way of a profit.

Whether it’s the economics that ring true to you or you prefer to call out the boogeymen or dwell on the negatives is a matter of personal preference. And sometimes you do just have to call bullshit on the misinformation. But there’s a good reason why I’ve had these amazing images rolling across the screen behind me for the past 15 minutes. Basically, to keep you focused on all the feel-good opportunities public lands provide, even when you get bored of listening to people like me.

Our old friend Charlie Meyers was fond of saying, “The best that any hunter or angler can hope to do is replace himself.” I think that same philosophy applies just as readily to the conservation side of outdoors. So my game, rooted in the mentorship of a man like Charlie Meyers, is to find a way to inspire people to care as much as, or more than, I do. The goal is to help people find the connection that motivates them to protect our public lands and maintain the relevance of conservation in America. I can’t think of anyone more qualified to do that than the people in this room — the Outdoor Writers Association of America. We have a skill, a calling, a passion for the outdoors, and an obligation to tell this story far and wide.

On that note, I want to leave the outdoor writers here tonight with a few things I think are worth considering when it comes to the public lands story. Ways to keep the conservation conversation relevant in America today:

First (and I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded with this tenet here tonight or not), try not to depress people, at least until you’ve tried to inspire them first. Depression has never really been known as a great motivator.

My friend Tom Bie, who publishes a fly fishing magazine called “The Drake,” used to be the editor of a skiing magazine called “Powder.” He tells the story of an editorial meeting where one of his assistant editors starts rattling off all these depressing statistics about the impacts of global warming and climate change on the ski industry and how in 20-30 years or something that there won’t be enough snow to cover the slopes and how we have to do something about this problem right now before it’s too late and it kills the sport. Tom looked at the guy and said, “Man, that’s a great story — for ‘Mother Jones’ magazine. But this is ‘Powder.’ The guy reading it on the train to Manhattan doesn’t want to hear that depressing news. He’s about to slug it out on the trading floor or stare at a cubicle wall for the next 9-10 hours; he’s looking for an escape. That’s what we need to give him.”

That’s not a knock on “Mother Jones.” But if you’re reading “Mother Jones” magazine, then you probably already have some interest in conservation and environmental issues. For the rest of the world, I think there’s more of a need to balance the left and right brain. Maybe sprinkle in the economic realities and some of the wonky political frustrations in there, but first “Demonstrate the Amazing.” Balance the logical with the emotional and seek out ways to inspire people. Don’t completely ignore the message, but a light touch can be just as effective through inspirational storytelling.

Next, find the connections. This concept is two-fold, but I think especially critical as the increasing urbanization of America continues on its current interminable trajectory. We are all aware of the challenges people face when it comes to getting outdoors — work, obligations, lack of time. But it’s important Americans don't lose touch with this important aspect of our nation’s heritage. The media can help here a lot if we put the necessary thought and effort into showing people ways of connecting with public lands that matter to them.

But the other, and perhaps even more significant part of the urbanization equation, is the way we connect with people, and especially youth. We hear all the time about how kids spend something like 35 hours a week in front of screens and only 30 minutes playing outside. And as sad as that may sound, the reality is that it’s pretty unlikely to change. Remember when your parents used to call the TV the “Idiot Box?” They’d tell you, “Get away from that thing!”

Well, it’s still here. It’s the same with computers, tablets, iPhones. They aren’t going away, so we need to find ways to make the outdoors — and specifically public lands — more engaging on those screens.

The Wilderness Society has a great example of that going on right now with the launch of their new “Our Wild” campaign and the micro-site they’ve created. It’s cool and interactive — it even has widgets — with video and sharp graphics and compelling stories. I think they’re off to a great start and there’s a lot to build off there. We could use more of that sort of thing.

Third, broaden the scope. There’s a lot of hook-and-bullet, traditional sportsmen and women writers represented here at the OWAA conference, and that may very well be the best educated audience there is when it comes to this issue. But public lands access affects us all, whether you’re a hunter, fisher, paddler, hiker, biker, surfer, dog owner, birdwatcher, berry picker or cattle grazer. It’s a story about veterans defending the physical representation of Democracy. It’s a story about ski bums. It’s about medical professionals who choose to live outside of the city, even if means a pay cut, in order to pursue their passion for the outdoors.

It seems like every day there’s a new use for public lands or a new activity that pops up. Somebody has an idea like Stand Up Paddling (SUP). Then Stand Up Paddle fishing, even Stand Up Paddle yoga.

Want to hear an incredible public lands story? Ever heard of Burning Man? It’s an annual event that draws 70,000 people to a BLM National Conservation Area in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. They basically build a temporary city, dedicated to art, and live there for a week, culminating in a massive bonfire of a giant combustible effigy. Think what you want about it, but here are a few compelling figures:

  • Burning Man organizers pay the BLM $4.5 million for their permit alone to host the event.
  • It’s recognized as the largest Leave No Trace event in the world. In order to qualify for next year’s permit, BLM inspectors require less than one square foot of trash per acre across the 4.5-mile venue.
  • Organizers paid more than $1 Million in taxes and other licensing fees to the government last year.
  • The Reno-Tahoe International Airport pulls in about $10 Million from Burning Man-bound flyers. Bigger than Christmas and Thanksgiving.
  • The event’s total economic impact measured between $55-60 Million last year.

Talk about an outside-the-box opportunity to educate a group of people who may not have a clue about this issue, but who probably are pretty passionate defenders of public lands whether they know it or not.

It’s unsettling to learn just how many people remain unaware of this takeover issue, but it’s also a great opportunity for a group of ambitious outdoor writers looking for an important issue to latch onto and make a name for themselves.

I’ve heard a lot at this conference about all the new content opportunities that are popping up every day, whether it’s a website or blog or brand. I’m sure all the fly fishermen in the room have heard of the brand Fishpond, which makes fly fishing gear and accessories. I just wrote something for their catalogue, website and newsletter on the value of public lands because they recognize that it’s in their best interest to Keep It Public. And I’m betting every sponsor or brand represented here feels the same way.

So think about ways to expand your comfort zone, even as it applies to more traditional media, but maybe with less traditional recreational uses. Write that story for Canoe & Kayak magazine, Stand-Up Paddler, Kayak Angler, Red Bull Media House — or maybe start your own Burning Man blog.

On that note, finally: Keep the Fire Lit. This is a story with legs.

A couple months ago, I had an opportunity to meet Jim Caswell, the National Director of the Bureau of Land Management for 8 years under George W. Bush and the former supervisor of the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho. He’s seen it all. (And by the way, Kris Millgate from Tight Line Media and an OWAA Board Member, was at the same meeting co-sponsored by Trout Unlimited, AFFTA and the Oceans Conservancy, and just posted a great story about this very topic on the Hatch Magazine website.)

Caswell has seen it all. And for the first time in his life, he’s nervous.

“I said, ‘It will never happen,’ for a long time, but now I’m not so sure,” Caswell said about the public lands takeover. “Will it go anywhere? I’m not sure.”

“We’ve lost our public support. We’ve lost our constituency,” he added. “People do not go to battle for us anymore.”

I’d prefer to think they’ve merely misplaced their constituency. More likely, they are simply failing to evolve with it. But that’s not an insurmountable problem. The game is far from over. And based on the conversations I’ve had here this weekend, I’m looking at a few hundred people who are interested and capable of sharing the never-ending story of our public lands. So get after it, people.

As we all know, the best stories have always been told in the outdoors. It’s the ideal backdrop for compelling drama. As our sprawling world grows ever more crowded, battle lines drawn over resources in greater demand, these stories of wild places and the people drawn to them are more important now than ever. And they require the voices of those who know and love them best to keep the fire lit.

“If we lose our public lands heritage, we’ve lost a lot for a long, long time,” Caswell said. “We have to keep them public. They are worth fighting for.”

So keep fighting.