I was born and raised in Kansas, the state that ranks number 50 when it comes to the amount of land owned by the state and federal government and open to public access. Now I live in Iowa, which ranks number 49.
In between, I lived 20 footloose years in expansive Wyoming, which comes in on the list at a heady number five. During my years living and writing in Wyoming, I traveled every highway, byway and backway and many a forest two-track. I hiked trails, got wet in some alpine lakes, traversed grasslands, crisscrossed a Native American reservation and watched antelope graze through a fence around an Air Force base.
Many of these areas were set aside for public ownership by the federal government. If I was careful about dodging cow pies, keeping my bearings in gas fields and wearing orange during hunting season, I could do almost anything I wanted on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land. I was grateful to U.S. presidents like Theodore Roosevelt for designating national parks and monuments, affirming the concept that some places should be preserved for the public.
But I’m embarrassed to admit that I never really considered the concept of public lands until I moved to Iowa. As a Westerner, I’d come to assume that we had the freedom of so much land simply because we deserved it. Surely, we were uncommonly attuned to the beauties of the natural world, vibrating to the flaring of the Milky Way in the summer night sky, or the wind whistling across vast stretches of sagebrush. I hate to admit it, but that’s what I thought.
It turns out that public and private lands were apportioned during the 19th and early 20th century largely in accordance with what the mostly white settlers wanted to use the land for. Land with plenty of rain and rich topsoil could yield crops. Other lands that were large enough to support grazing made useful ranch spreads. Land with lots of trees could be logged for timber, and land with mineral deposits could be mined. Lands that didn’t seem particularly useful were retained by the federal government, although they could still be leased if so desired.
The pattern of land ownership connected to natural resources and homesteading acts is complicated enough to fill a thundercloud of server farms. But now that I’m observing the question from outside the West, I can see how much access to even little bits of public land matters, regardless of how it came to exist.
In Iowa, the state’s native prairie and timber has been mostly subdued by tractors, combines and herbicides. Today we use our topsoil and precipitation to grow corn and soybeans to feed the cattle and hogs that in turn “feed the world.” These days, some of this farmland is disappearing under development.
I’m fortunate to live in a small town with a state park at its edge. In a good snow year, I can cross-country ski if I break my own trail. In summer, I can walk to the top of a 250-foot limestone bluff for a good view of a two-lane highway, a cornfield, and my small town on the banks of the braided-blue Mississippi River. There, I can find a blood-pressure-lowering peace that reminds me of how I felt walking in the deepest forests or broadest basins of the public-land West.
My current detour to the Midwest has taught me how central to my own happiness is the peace of natural places. I’ve managed to find it, on both sides of the 100th meridian. But it has taken some doing.
I stitch together the fragments of bottomland wildlife refuges and un-tillable river bluffs converted to state parks. I bind these public spaces together with the private places I visit by invitation: family farms, where I can swim in a pond or pull trout from a spring-fed creek; timbered acres, where I hunt for morel mushrooms; front porches, where I can watch pelicans and eagles soar over the Mississippi River. Still, I lack solitude.
I’ve learned that people in private-property states crave the beauties of the natural world just as much as the rest of us do. That’s a hopeful thing, and it shows that access is worth fighting for — whether your state comes in first, last or someplace in between in its gift of public lands.