From the edge of the road: Looking into the roadless. Photo by Brian Kelly
It’s been pretty noisy around northeast Oregon lately. As the US Forest Service tries to deal with motorized use of public lands, objections have been heard from people who have become accustomed to being able to drive just about anywhere they please. The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest has more than nine thousand miles of roads, many of them left over from old logging projects. Over much of the National Forest, you are currently allowed to drive off the roads and across country if you feel like it.
Some folks seem to view the Forest Service travel planning process as a restriction of their freedom and access to public lands. Of course, when four-wheel-drive vehicles and ATVs drive unrestricted across the landscape then wildlife habitat is degraded, water quality suffers and weeds spread across the countryside. The peaceful beauty that people seek on public wild lands can become diminished by the impacts of the users.
What about our freedom? Well, two of America’s greatest conservationists wrote about freedom in describing their relationship with the natural world.
“What avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
Aldo Leopold wrote these powerful words. While of course we all need roads to access wild places, at a certain point the presence of a road itself diminishes the very character of the wild place that we seek. The place where the road ends and the blank spot begins is a special place indeed. You will find wildlife, old forests, and clean waters when you find the blank spots on the map.
Here are the words of John Muir:
“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Following his description of freedom in the mountains, John Muir added this next sentence:
“As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail.”
It’s striking to me that rather than complaining about not being allowed to drive a Model T Ford across the forest as he grew older, John Muir chose to rejoice in the enjoyment of nature.
He was a very wise man and a free man as well.