By Helen Kilburn
Many Sewanee students are very active in their passion for outdoor recreation. The plateau is the perfect place for such activities, but many of our students also travel around the country and the globe to go on trips involving hiking, skiing, climbing and the like. This is wonderful as it connects these students to nature in a way that often fosters a tradition of environmental protection, but how much do we really know about the history, management, and impact of such lands and the people they attract?
In order to examine this question, Dan Harper (C’20) invited Dr. Ken Smith to give a talk about land management at the Green House on March 7. The lecture portion mostly revolved around land management out west, where 30 to 60 percent of land is managed by the government. This has been a very publicized topic in recent news and, as such, was important to learn more about.
Additionally, it is an area where Smith has experience working in the field. He spoke to the level of emotion that surrounds the issue of protected land and the tension that comes with the federal government controlling the land in these rural communities. Smith spoke to the role of mining, oil, and ranching as an incentives that turns people against protecting lands while tourism and (often) support from local Native American tribes.
Smith also spoke about the effects of the political climate on land protection. He said agencies will continue to prioritize mining and oil under the current administration, but that land management will be a big topic in the west in the next election.
Overall, how land is controlled in the western United States is highly complicated, and Smith suggests that, for people from the East, they should “work and live for a while to get a feel for how it all works.” The layers of complication require someone to be present in the space in order to best understand it.
Smith spoke to the many environmental issues the West currently faces. He listed one of the most evident matters as the number of tourists visiting and using the protected areas in the west. The example he gave of this was skiing. Skiing is often considered environmental, but he did point out that clear cutting a vertical area of a mountain is not the best course of action ecologically speaking. As he said “in the summer it’s just bare-naked right up the hill.”
Other current environmental issues he listed included invasive species and gas leases. He again brought up tourism, saying that the West is often a dry and fragile environment and is being damaged by the number of visitors. This raises the important question of protection versus exposure and how it is the legal right of citizens to visit national protected areas. This then segued into a conversation reminding us that, with that legal right, it is important to remember that protected areas have a contentious history in that most of the land was taken from Native Americans.
The information, questions, and reminders were all leading to a culmination, namely is there a solution and what would that be. The answer: there is no answer, at least no sure answer. Smith did say he sees “the best way to go” as giving power to local collaborative groups that know the area.
So what does western land history, management, and impact have to do with the outdoor recreational tendencies of Sewanee students? As Harper said about his inspiration for organizing the event: “I benefit a lot from the one side of this as an outdoor recreator and I want to be conscious of my actions. How we treat our land [and the people associated with it] is a reflection of our true values”
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