D-Day Every Day

Nature, Warfare, and the Illusion of Self

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Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these mangrove seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.

I often wonder what it was like for the Allied soldiers to step off the boats into a hail of bullets on the beaches of Normandy. As an empathic person, I get emotionally entwined with other people’s realities. For our soldiers on June 6, 1944, there was nowhere to hide. Allied forces took the beach through sheer numbers, by putting enough bodies on the beach that the Nazis couldn’t shoot them all, that enough soldiers would survive to overtake the German positions, enabling the Allied forces to get a toehold in France, put down roots, and slowly reclaim the European continent. I cannot imagine the horror of advancing across the beach that day. And I can’t help but notice the curious parallels among nature, where D-Day happens every day, and wonder what we might learn from it all.

Landing on another beach on the other side of the world in New Zealand, I was fascinated to discover a legion of army-green seeds amassed on the sand, deposited there by the tides. Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.

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It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

The seeds shed their outer seed coats, and the folded seed leaves had begun to spread. A few had grown short roots, although the roots were fully exposed to the mid-summer sun. One was several inches tall. The prop-roots on the sides tipped me to the identity—mangrove seedlings. It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

I soon discovered that the mangroves lived in a nearby estuary, well adapted to the brackish water where slow moving river water mixed with salty tidal water from the ocean. They rooted easily there, growing in dense profusion within the sheltered backwater. But the seeds on the beach were doomed. The lack of previously established mangroves on the beachfront implied that the odds were against them, that nature could send battalions in wave after wave to take the beach and each seed soldier would try its utmost to sink down roots and unfurl its leaves, only to be bounced around in the tide, doomed to slowly desiccate in the sand, salt, and sun. Yet, nature doesn’t stop sending in more troops and trying again, because that’s what nature does every day, everywhere.

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Apricots produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity.

Closer to home, I see the same story played out again and again. Thousands of inch-high plant seedlings carpeting otherwise barren ground in early spring when the soil is moist, only to whither and die as soon as the sun dries the soil. Perhaps one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand, survive to carry out their mission. I’ve seen it with feral apricot trees, too. They produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity. It isn’t just about plants either, because every year there is an explosion of new life, new baby birds and cuddly little mammals, and by the following year there are, on average, no more of any given species than there was the year before.

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How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road?

Being empathetic, or rather sympathetic, I cannot help but think that it all seems unfair. Seedling plants, baby birds, newborn fawns, nineteen-year-old soldiers; their lives cut short before they’ve begun. How many mothers lost their precious teenage sons as “cannon fodder” to use up the Nazi bullets? How many soldiers trained for battle, yet took a bullet in the choppy surf, dead before they reached the beach or even fired a shot? How many baby birds are devoured alive by snakes or rats or raptors while their parents helplessly watch and scream in protest and pain? How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road? How many newborn seedlings have given their utmost to put down roots and send up leaves, only to be desiccated in the sun or starved out by more established vegetation?

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We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes.

We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes. On the beaches of Normandy, there was no significant advantage for seasoned war veterans over new soldiers seeing their first tour of duty. All were equally exposed to the unrelenting hail of bullets screaming across the beach. And so it is with plants and animals. The seeds that survive to grow into plants or trees are not always those with the strongest genes, but rather those that are lucky enough to find bare ground to take root, yet not so much sun that they dry out too quickly. The shadow of a small rock may provide the magic microhabitat that allows a seedling to take root. If it isn’t grazed off or stepped on then the plant might survive to maturity.

Reaching maturity doesn’t necessarily provide any guarantee of survival either. Many birds have over-wintered in the tropics and flown thousands of miles back to mate, nest, and raise a family, only to be eaten by a house cat upon arrival. I cannot help but sympathize and anthropomorphize with ground squirrels that wake up from hibernation and excitedly run about in a celebration of spring, only to be flattened by a passing car.

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What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world.

What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world. The ground squirrels that are instantly flattened are perhaps the lucky ones, at least compared to the deer that are mortally wounded by cars, hunters, or mountain lions, only to die a slow, painful death alone in the brush.

Spend much time in the woods, and you will notice that there are bones everywhere. Everything dies, and frequently in the most painful ways imaginable, such as for a mouse that is repeatedly tossed into the air by the claws of a cat or carried off in the talons of a raptor, often eaten while half alive. For the soldiers, too, I suppose the lucky ones received instant death from a killing shot, while most were just brutally torn apart, gut shot, or totally incapacitated by an exploded femur bone, bleeding to death in agony.

We live in a society that is highly insulated from death and the realities of life. People feel no twinge of pain when they buy a beefsteak neatly shrink-wrapped on a Styrofoam tray, or a head of cabbage decapitated from its roots yet very much alive, even while being finely chopped and mixed in coleslaw. We euthanize our pets or “put them to sleep” as we say it, to mask the reality that we are killing them, indeed murdering them. We hire morticians to embalm our deceased loved ones in lifelike form and display them in pretty boxes. We are so detached from death that we don’t understand what it means to be alive.

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As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock.

As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock. It feels like murder every time, as it should, because that is the reality of living. As Buddhism teaches, “life is suffering.” The nature of existence is inherently painful, yet we can have compassion for all living things.

Whenever I kill an animal, I find myself wondering who might be left waiting back at home. Did it have a mate? Did it have a mother or father that was still watching over it? Did it have young ones hidden away in a nest or burrow, forlornly waiting for a next meal that will never come? What was it like for women back home, waiting for letters from the war front, never knowing which letter might be the last?

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In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things.

In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things. Every plant and animal is a unique individual with its own genome, and with animals at least, a unique “personality.” Yet they are nameless and therefore selfless, celebrated as part of the interconnected web of life, rather than as individuals with personal biographies and self-importance.

The soldiers of Normandy were also selfless and that is difficult to appreciate in a world of selfie sticks and Facebook profiles. I see the names of fallen World War II solders engraved in plaques in city parks across our country. Each one was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, or maybe a father, their lives cut short by warfare. Collectively, they were bodies who selflessly threw themselves at the battlefield, much as the mangrove seeds tried to storm the beach with sheer numbers.

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Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty.

Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty. The same could be said about the Allied invasion of France.

Our world would be a much darker place today if the Allied forces had decided to accept a Nazi Europe, knowing that the price for taking back the continent would be so high. But a great many young men understood that being a body for the cause was more important than being an individual.

I think about the selflessness of that generation and wonder what we could learn from that today. We live at a time when life is more imperiled than ever before, and the cause is arguably the rise of the self and self-importance. We are a consumer culture, consumed with ourselves. It is the ego of the self that drives people to bulldoze a mountaintop or riverfront property to build a house with a view. It is the self that wants a trendy new car, a big flatscreen television, and organic coffee imported from the other side of the planet. It is the self that cares only for itself, celebrity news, and who wins or loses the Super Bowl.

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We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago.

We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago. Yet we are consumed with trivial things like getting a job and buying useless stuff, as if saving the planet were somebody else’s responsibility. But the reality is that there is nobody else, and the only thing that will save us from ourselves is to lose ourselves, to recognize that our lives do not belong to us and never did. Our lives belong to the earth and we are here to serve future generations to the best of our ability.

Halting the destruction of our world and creating a sustainable future will require a selfless commitment equal or bigger than the commitment that took back Europe. For it wasn’t just soldiers on the front lines that made a difference, but all those back home who worked to grow food, build equipment, and recycle metals needed for the war effort. At this late juncture, healing our world will require similar selfless commitment, coordination, and camaraderie of everyone working together towards a single unifying goal: Life. If we pull together towards the common cause, we can make the world a better place for all.

            Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit.

 

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Freedom to Roam

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Freedom to Roam was published in the May/June 2016 issue of Montana Outdoors magazine.

Freedom to roam has been a fundamental right for Montanans since before statehood, lasting until recent times. Ask anyone middle-aged or older about growing up here, and most will reminisce about rambling the countryside, hiking, fishing, exploring, and crossing fences regardless of property boundaries. Unfortunately, many newcomers to the state, unaware of Montana traditions, posted “No Trespassing” signs to keep people out. Acre-by-acre, property-by-property, we lost access, and with it, part of our identity. Montanans have always cherished a deep connection to nature. Yet, without the right to roam, children grow up on roads, lawns, and electronics. That isn’t the Montana way.

Our traditions are rooted in Europe, where freedom to roam is recognized by numerous countries from Scandinavia to the U.K.Several nations recently codified the right to roam into law. For example, England and Wales recognized everyman’s right to roam in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000, while Scotland recognized the right with the Land Reform Act of 2003. The public is allowed access, provided they respect private property in their wanderings.

Freedom to roam goes hand-in-hand with nurturing a sense of respect for the land and landowners. Those who remember owning the freedom to roam were not likely leaving gates open, cutting fences, littering, or vandalizing properties. Those are symptoms of bored and disconnected citizens, lacking an ethic of stewardship. Montanans can restore the right to roam, and with it, we can cultivate a renewed sense of stewardship and respect for the land and landowners.

This mini-essay was published as a letter to the editor titled “Don’t fence us in” in the May/June 2016 issue of Montana Outdoors magazine. For more depth be sure to read the related blogs:

Posted: Please Tresspass The Green Post Campaign to Reclaim Everyman’s Right to Roam

Neofeudalism and the Overlords of Montana A land and people conquered by money

Building a National Park

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Author Interview: Thomas J. Elpel

I was interviewed by Write Coach David Alan Binder. Here is a copy of the interview, originally published on Binder’s website.

Author Thomas J. Elpel

Author Thomas J. Elpel

How do you pronounce your name?  Elpel is pronounced El-pel, kind of like El Paso, but it is German or Lithuanian, not Spanish.

Where are you currently living?  I’ve been in Pony, Montana since 1989. My grandmother moved here before I did, and she mentored me in edible and medicinal plants and wilderness survival skills. Three years out of high school, I bought land a block from her house and starting building my own.

What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?  Use simple language. There is no need to impress anyone with big words. Any word that isn’t familiar to the majority of the population requires a definition embedded in the text, so that the reader can fluidly absorb the new word and continue reading without interruption.

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.

What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk? I like to dedicate each book to a different person who is special to me and somehow connected with the book. The dedication and a photo of the person is included on the title page.

Foraging the Mountain West.

Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?  My publishing business, HOPS Press, LLC, started very out very slowly. As a young man, I was selling photocopied books with plastic comb bindings. Over time, the quality of my writing improved, and I started printing real books with paperback and hardcover bindings and ISBN numbers. The publishing business matured with my writing, and I really like being able to design and market all facets of a product on my own schedule, without anyone else dictating how they think it should be.

Any insights eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing? Most of our titles are rich with pictures and captions, so converting from paper to eBook can require major reformatting. We are tip-toeing that direction, but otherwise prefer traditional printed books.

Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?  The most important step is to write the book you want to write, not the one you think the market wants. Stay true to yourself, and you will build a deeper connection with your audience.

How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent?  Any tips for new writers on getting one?  I’ve never worked with an agent. Maybe I should. On the other hand, being my own publisher and not having an agent has necessitated learning and understanding how to connect with my audience directly, and I prefer that deeper connection.

Botany in a Day.

Do you have any suggestions for new writers?  A book is never done, especially a nonfiction book. It can take years to get a book ready for publication, yet a publisher may only market the title for six months or a year, then remainder or shred the rest. As my own publisher, I prefer to market a book until I’ve sold every copy, then revise, improve, polish, and print it again. Some of my titles have six editions, each a significant improvement over its predecessor, like wine that improves with age.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?  Writing continually improves with time and experience. When I finish a book I’m sure it is the greatest work ever written. But by the time I sell out and revise the book for the next edition, I am embarrassed by what seems like shoddy writing, and I wish I could buy up and burn the old books!

How many books have you written?  I’ve written seven books so far, plus I’ve produced several videos and a card game. Books include:

Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Direct Pointing to Real Wealth: Thomas J. Elpel’s Field Guide to Money
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit

Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer?  Weed out the little words and make your writing more concise and to the point… Weed out little words for more concise writing. 

Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids

Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story? I write mostly nonfiction, which is easy, because it doesn’t have to be invented, just documented well. My children’s book, Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99 is a fictional story, yet only on the surface. It uses mythology to teach science and botany. It is successful because the substance of the story is real, rather than invented.

What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?  I write about topics that matter to me and haven’t been covered adequately by others. There is a niche and a need, and I write the books I’ve been searching for myself.

Living Homes.

What are some ways in which you promote your work? My books sell through word-of-mouth. People like what they read and share it with others. The challenge is to introduce a new title, often a new topic, to a new audience, to entice enough people to read it and start talking to other people about it. Botany in a Day was the easiest book to market. I delivered review copies to herbal schools, and they recommended it to their students and have continued to do so ever since.

What is the one thing you would do differently now, concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating, and why? I get excited about a new book and print thousands of copies, when it might be smarter to launch new titles with print-on-demand and refine them for another year or two before doing a large printing.

Roadmap to Reality.

What saying or mantra do you live by? Carlos Castaneda once said something to the effect of, “Death is stalking you over your left shoulder.” I don’t want death to stalk up on me lazing around in front of the television. I seek to make the most of every day I have in this life. I try to keep pushing my own boundaries and limitations to do more and to contribute more to humanity and the natural world with whatever time I have left in this world.

Author book links:  HOPS Press, LLC | Personal Website | Amazon.com | GoodReads.com

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Neofeudalism and the Overlords of Montana

A land and people conquered by money

Driving the backroads of Montana, opulence is not a word that comes to mind to describe pastoral scenes of hay fields, barbwire fences, and herds of black Angus cattle grazing in grassy pastures. To the naked eye, this is pure Montana, a traditional rural landscape of family farms, except that it isn’t. Montana is being overrun by the superrich, multimillionaires and billionaires who not only buy up the land for private fiefdoms, but erode our freedoms and reduce Montanans to a peasant class working in servitude to these neofeudal overlords.

Meet the Neighbors

Montana is part-time home to countless multimillionaires, yet it is the billionaires that make the greatest waves—gobbling up large ranches and family farms to build private estates for themselves and their hunting and fishing buddies.

For the most part, these are not entirely bad people. For example, Ted Turner, founder of CNN, owns four ranches in Montana, totaling 153,000 acres. Highly conservation oriented, Turner has protected much of his land with conservation easements to prevent future development. Turner has raised the largest private herd of buffalo in the world and invested countless millions in environmental and conservation efforts. However, he also went against longstanding Montana traditions by posting “No Trespassing” signs to keep the common folk of Montana off his estates. Turner arguably set the precedent and created the model for other billionaires to follow: Come to Montana, buy a private kingdom, then chase the peasant class off the land.

Downstream from Turner’s Snowcrest Ranch, James Cox Kennedy owns 30,000 acres, including eight miles of the Ruby River. Kennedy once served as chairman of the Colorado Division of Wildlife and on the board of Ducks Unlimited. He has donated heavily to conservation projects, mostly benefiting waterfowl and wetlands. But Kennedy has also waged a long-running legal battle against Montana’s Stream Access Law that allows the public to float and fish on state rivers, including the Ruby River that runs through his otherwise private estate. If it were up to Kennedy, he would own the river, and nobody else could use it. He has even run electric fences across the river to zap floaters.

A short distance downstream from Kennedy, the Ruby River merges into the Beaverhead River and shortly thereafter into the Jefferson River, where New York billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James bought up a 38,000-acre estate for his personal recreational fiefdom. Like Turner and Kennedy, Tony James is a conservationist, a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society and several similar organizations, and an advisory board member of the Montana Land Reliance, an organization working to protect land with conservation easements. Like his fellow billionaires, James chose to block traditional public access to private lands, and like Kennedy, James isn’t a big fan of public access even where the public has a legal right.

Beaver Chew Campsite

Billionaire Tony James is attempting to take control of “Beaver Chew,” an 80-acre public campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

James’ ranch, SRI River Holdings, LLC is presently pushing a land swap with the state to take control of 80 acres of prime riverfront state lands designated as the Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. To be fair, James proposes to give the state 111 acres of land on the nearby Big Hole River, which would be a reasonable trade if it didn’t eliminate essential public land on the Jefferson River.

James wants to move all public use away from his personal estate, and the proposal includes an upland component that would reasonably hand over state land near his house in exchange for land in the mountains that would facilitate access to federal lands. That part of the deal was negotiated by Skyline Sportsmen, a hunting access group based in Butte. However, the entire land swap is contingent on James obtaining Beaver Chew, pitting one public access group against another. Riverfront acreage is expensive. If the deal goes through,  the Jefferson River Canoe Trail will have to raise $800,000 to $1.2 million to replace public lands lost along the Jefferson River.

At one point in the negotiations, James offered to donate four acres of rock and cactus land for a public floater’s camp at the downstream point of the ranch to offset some of the 80-acre loss. A potential counter-offer to make the campsite slightly larger to access nearby Bureau of Management Lands (BLM) was rejected because James didn’t want to give the public access to public land behind his ranch. SRI River Holdings then placed a “Private Property – No Trespassing” sign on the upstream end of state land at Beaver Chew, scaring away floaters who come looking for the public campsite.

Bull Elk.

The Wilks brothers want to take control of prime elk habitat in the Durfee Hills through a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management.

Also relatively new to Montana, Dan and Ferris Wilks made their billions in the fracking industry and quickly consolidated numerous ranches and family farms into a giant, 360,000-acre private estate, more than twice the size of Turner’s holdings in Montana, and half the size of the state of Rhode Island. Like other billionaires, the Wilks brothers closed the land to traditional access and have tried to expand their grasp to public lands. The Wilks sought to obtain prime elk habitat in the Durfee Hills through a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management, which was successfully shot down by area hunters. The Wilks’s responded to the defeat by erecting a fence encircling the Durfee Hills and posting No Trespassing signs.

Forrest Mars, Jr., a billionaire of Mars, Inc. that makes M&Ms, Mars, Milky Way, and other candies, bought out local ranches, assembling an 82,000-acre estate called the Diamond Cross ranch that encompasses much of the upper Tongue River near Birney, Montana. Mr. Mars also closed the properties to public access.

Initially, Mars seemed like a great ally to local environmentalists because he joined the fight against he proposed Tongue River Railroad, which would have hauled coal from the proposed Otter Creek Coal Mine. But Forrest Mars Jr. ultimately solved his problem the way billionaires do: He bought a share of the Tongue River Railroad and redesigned the railroad so it wouldn’t cross his land! Fortunately, the coal company eventually filed bankruptcy, and plans for the Tongue River Railroad died with the declining coal market.

Rounding out the list of Montana’s most notorious billionaires, Tim Blixseth, a real estate developer, took a bulldozer to the heart of the Madison Range to build the Yellowstone Club, a recreational gated community for billionaires and billionaire wannabes. If you want to have a vacation home next to Bill Gates, it is the place to be, but the gated community bisects habitat where wildlife would otherwise be free to migrate the full length of the Madison Range. Fortunately, Blixseth ultimately went bankrupt and spent fifteen months in jail for contempt of court because he failed to account for millions of dollars he owes to creditors.

It is particularly fitting that Blixseth should lose his freedom and land in jail, because the essential crime committed by him and his fellow billionaires, Dan and Ferris Wilks, James Kennedy, Ted Turner, Forrest Mars Jr., and Tony James, is a fundamental loss of freedom for all Montanans.

Lost Freedoms

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomena in Montana.

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomena in Montana.

Before the millionaires and billionaires came, Montana belonged to everyone. Ask anyone middle-aged or older about growing up here, and most will reminisce about rambling the countryside, hiking, fishing, exploring, and crossing fences regardless of property boundaries. Freedom to roam has been a fundamental right for Montanans since before statehood, and landowners were typically pleased to see people engaged in healthy recreation on their farmlands. Unfortunately, as wealthy newcomers moved into the state, they bought land and posted boundaries with “No Trespassing” signs effectively keeping local people out. Miles out in the country, far from the nearest farmhouse, these signs appeared, threatening prosecution against anyone who should be brazen enough to take a walk on the overlords’ lands.

My first encounter with neofeudalism consisted of a gate plastered with about a dozen No Trespassing and Keep Out signs. It was April 1988, and my girlfriend and I were several days into a 500-mile walk across Montana. We started at my grandmother’s house in Pony and walked cross-country to Three Forks where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers come together to form the Missouri River. We followed railroad tracks downstream along the Missouri to Sixteen Mile Creek, planning to retrace the old railroad bed upstream east towards the Montana prairie. The railroad was clearly marked on our maps, but the railroad company went bankrupt in the 1970s and their easement was abandoned, allowing the land to revert to private ownership. That wasn’t a problem, but the No Trespassing signs were. After assessing our situation this far along, we concluded that we had no other alternative. April is still somewhat wintery in Montana, and Sixteen Mile was the only reasonable path to cut through the mountains to the prairies beyond, so over the gate we went.

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SRI River Holdings, a.k.a. Tony James, placed a “Private Property – No Trespassing” sign on the upstream end of state land at Beaver Chew, scaring away floaters who come hoping to camp on the public land.

At first the fiefdoms were few and far between, annoying, but not totally threatening. After all, Montana is a big place, far bigger than the boundaries of a few isolated fiefdoms. However, the superrich expanded their holdings, gobbling up family farms into ever-larger holdings, and new overlords joined them, buying more and more land. As aspiring Montana writer John Dracon pointed out, Europeans found the feudal system reprehensible, so it is ironic that feudalism is making a comeback in modern times. Acre-by-acre, property-by-property, we lost access, and with it, part of our identity. Montanans have always cherished a deep connection to nature. Yet, without the right to roam, children grow up on roads, lawns, and electronics. Disconnected from nature, people lose respect for the land, making them more likely to leave a trail of litter, graffiti, and vandalism. It isn’t the Montana way.

As I later discovered, the gate plastered with No Trespassing signs was the boundary to Turner’s Bar None Ranch. He owns three massive ranches within fifty miles of Pony, while Kennedy, James, and other megarich landowners have been steadily gobbling up the remaining private lands in between.

Sixteen Mile Creek was one of the most amazing places we encountered in our walk across Montana. The creek ran high and muddy, and it would have been difficult to ascend the narrow, winding canyon, except that the old abandoned railroad bed included wooden trestles over the water and multiple tunnels boring through the solid rock canyon walls. We saw 28 elk and 250 deer in a single day.

Although it is illegal to privatize wildlife in Montana, some of these enormous ranches encompass enough land to effectively privatize the wildlife within. For the low, low price of $14,000 – $15,000, private parties can hunt elk on Turner’s ranches. In our journey, we did cross paths with Turner’s land manager, but much to his credit, he simply waved us onward.

Bison grazing.

Ted Turner raises bison and supports wildlife and conservation, but also helped start neofeudalism in Montana.

I’ve never been wholly anti-Turner. After all, he has placed conservation easements on much of his land, protecting it in perpetuity from being subdivided and developed. That is good news for preserving wide-open vistas behind our unofficial slogan, “Big Sky Country.” Turner also raises bison, arguably helping to bolster the cause of an animal so iconic to our country that Congress named it our national mammal. In addition, Turner donates money to numerous causes, and he supports local community programs with small grants. A community grant from Turner provides modest support ($1,800/year) for my own work teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills to school kids.

Turner’s ranches were always far enough away that I wasn’t directly confronted with the loss of access myself. It wasn’t until other millionaires and billionaires started claiming the land in between that I really began to notice the squeeze.

Freedom to roam goes hand-in-hand with nurturing a sense of respect for the land and landowners. Those who remember owning the freedom to roam were not likely leaving gates open, cutting fences, littering, or vandalizing properties. Those behaviors are symptoms of bored and disconnected citizens, lacking an ethic of stewardship. Montanans can restore the right to roam, and with it, we can cultivate a renewed sense of stewardship and respect for the land and landowners. Without freedom to roam, Montanans are reduced to serfdom to the overlords.

Serfdom

The saddest part about the rise of neofeudalism in Montana is that people who live here are reduced to a peasant class working in servitude to these out-of-state overlords. In the past, Montanans had the right to go anywhere, but now people are only allowed onto the overlords’ estates as servants to vacuum carpets and mow lawns.

Countless Montanans have prostituted themselves to the wealthy for a paycheck. Some are employed bulldozing roads deep into pristine landscapes, building mansions that are maintained and heated all year long, yet seldom occupied by the overlords. Others are employed building fences where none existed before, paid to install the No Trespassing signs that will keep themselves out as soon as the job is done. It seems like a good deal, getting paid by the filthy rich to mow a lawn or plow a driveway, but the price is that we are no longer a free people. We are increasingly indentured to overlords who use the people of Montana and then threaten to turn the police upon us if we violate their airspace by walking through woods that they themselves will likely never visit.

The serfdom that Montanans are subjected to isn’t limited to merely doing chores for the billionaires. One problem in dealing with the megarich is that they are willing to consume everyone’s time but their own. For example, a land swap proposal, such as Tony James’ bid to take control of public lands along the Jefferson River, commands time and energy of dozens of people, including common citizens who must clear their own schedules to deal with the issues.

Land trades are the billionaire’s game of Monopoly. Rather than get their own hands dirty, a landowner typically hires minions to do the dirty work to push a land swap proposal through the public scoping process, in this case enlisting the real estate services of American Lands, based in Missoula, Montana. Like anyone indentured to the megarich, the people at American Lands perceive servitude as opportunity. They claim to vet their clients carefully, working only for billionaires who are committed to conservation. They may purport to favor a collaborative process to seek out win-win solutions, but in order to serve the overlords, they are also willing to pit Montanans against Montanans, and if necessary, steamroll anyone who gets in the way.

A billionaire can potentially push a land swap deal with only one or two hired guns to move it forward, because public officials do much of the actual work, and taxpayers foot the bill. Public employees effectively work for the landowner, calculating land values, holding public hearings, and soliciting public comments. If a trade goes through, then the state or federal government may gain a few acres of land, ‘of equal or greater value,’ but there is no accounting for the cost of employee time to administer the land swap.

Above all, it is the common people, the peasant class, that are functionally reduced to servitude to the billionaire’s agenda in these land swap proposals, sometimes in favor, often opposed, and sometimes compelled to face off against each other. In order to protect their public lands, ordinary people must set their lives aside to attend meetings, get educated on the issues, and make informed public comments. Mounting a successful campaign can consume months of time and considerable expense for such things as babysitters, fuel, luncheon meals, and printing costs. Win or lose, nobody gets compensated for their time and expense in dealing with these issues. It is the billionaire’s game of real estate. They decide when they want to play, and in doing so, they dictate the agenda for affected citizens for months or years.

The irony is that billionaires play from afar, willing to consume everyone’s time but their own. That was evident at a public hearing on Mr. James’ land swap proposal. The meeting consumed the time of our state’s highest public officials, including the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and other state employees. Also attending were those of us who set aside our day to drive to the Capitol on icy roads to testify. In effect, every person in the room was there in servitude to the neofeudal overlord who didn’t bother to show up himself.

Absolute Power

The problem in dealing with people with too much money is that they are accustomed to getting anything they want. On the surface the overlords may seem like genuinely nice people, benefactors who donate funds to support local communities and environmental causes. But money comes with a price, and the overlords do not hesitate to use it.

Outside_Bozeman

Author Don Thomas lost his job at Ducks Unlimited magazine for writing an article about James Kennedy that was published in Outside Bozeman magazine.

James Kennedy, for example, is a big time donor to Ducks Unlimited, greatly benefiting waterfowl and waterfowl hunters. Yet, he has also funded fifteen years of litigation against the state of Montana to limit public access to Ruby River where it crosses his estate. Kennedy is a media mogul, part of the Cox family that controls the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) plus numerous other daily newspapers, television stations, and dozens of radio stations. Kennedy has been described as “the most hated person in Montana,” and his crusade against stream access rights is constant fodder in Montana newspapers. Yet his media audience in Georgia has never heard about Kennedy’s doppelganger life in Montana, and the AJC has notably omitted major news stories on similar issues in their home state of Georgia. Sadly, when Montana author Don Thomas chronicled the long-running legal saga in Outside Bozeman magazine, Thomas was summarily fired from his job at Ducks Unlimited magazine. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, but that right doesn’t apparently include freedom to criticize the overlords.

In a similar vein, Tony James is Vice Chairman of Trout Unlimited’s Coldwater Conservation Fund, and not surprisingly, local Trout Unlimited chapters support his land swap proposal to take away Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Then there is the problem of money in politics. Tony James has deep ties to the Democratic Party, and he once hosted a fundraiser in his home for President Obama. He also has deep ties to Montana Democrats, including Governor Steve Bullock.

Governor Bullock is one of five members of the Montana Land Board, the five highest elected officials in the state that ultimately decide “yes” or “no” on land exchange proposals. It is unclear whether or not the land swap proposal can get a fair trial with an influential billionaire pulling the strings.

Map of Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Map of Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

As American Lands did scoping work for Tony James’ land swap proposal, they claimed that public input was essential to the process. But when the Jefferson River Canoe Trail opposed the land trade, James’ and his hired guns at American Lands decided to push the land trade through anyway.

The first public hearing was quietly scheduled for a Monday morning, four days before Christmas, when people were busy and the roads were icy. Coincidentally, the Jefferson River Canoe Trail was not invited to the hearing, only learning about it through secondary channels and good luck. Members of the Canoe Trail mounted a serious last minute campaign and spoke eloquently at the hearing, successfully turning two votes against the land swap proposal.

Strangely, nobody spoke in favor of the proposal. Nor did they need to. Despite the controversial nature of  the land trade proposal, Governor Bullock and two other members of the Montana Land Board voted in favor of pushing the land trade forward to the next step in the evaluation process.

As Sir John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Montana is a land and people conquered by money. If we want to be a free people again, we must begin by making a united stand against the overlords. Who’s with me?

Thomas J. Elpel is president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the author of seven books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living.

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Jefferson River Canoe Trail

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Posted: Please Trespass

The Green Post Campaign to Reclaim Everyman’s Right to Roam

We need an educational campaign to encourage landowners to welcome healthy trespassing.

We need an educational campaign to encourage landowners to welcome healthy trespassing.

America is often called the “land of the free,” yet we are not free. Citizens are not confined, but rather restricted by an endless barrage of “No Trespassing” and “Keep Out” signs across the country. We think of this existence as normal, so normal that we rarely think about it at all. Yet, the proliferation of No Trespassing signs is a cultural aberration that is relatively recent, at least in some parts of our country, and very much at odds with traditions in other parts of the world. Moreover, posting property to keep people out fosters idleness and thus boredom, which can lead to vandalism and abuse that makes No Trespassing signs appear necessary in the first place. If we wish to raise a populace that is fit, healthy, responsible, and free, then we must cross-examine the idea of private property and compare our cultural expectations with those of people from other lands.

New Zealand is crisscrossed with such an amazing abundance of public walking tracks that there is little incentive or need to trespass.

New Zealand is crisscrossed with such an amazing abundance of public walking tracks that there is little incentive or need to trespass.

I found it refreshing to travel in New Zealand for five weeks, where I did not encounter a single No Trespassing or Keep Out sign anywhere in the country. The most stringent sign I saw was a “Multiple Hazard” warning, cautioning people about entering farmlands. On the other hand, the country also has an amazing system of trails or “tracks,” as they call them. These tracks are easily accessible trails, providing little incentive for anyone to trespass. In visiting with the locals, I learned that New Zealand laws and customs are both very access-friendly. For example, most beaches and watercourses are considered public property. I enjoyed walking one public track along the waterfront near the town of Paihia, along the Bay of Islands. Private properties along the trail were sometimes brushy and fenced off, or might have a house right along the track with no fence, or sometimes the trail would even wind across a property and around a tool shed. The track always took precedence, and as long as people have the ability to walk unimpeded, what need is there to trespass?

Public tracks in New Zealand often cross working farms and ranches. In this case, the trail went across a cattle pasture and through a unique gate.

Public tracks in New Zealand often cross working farms and ranches. In this case, the trail went across a cattle pasture and through a unique gate.

Watercourses, I was told, include any little perennial or intermittent stream going across any pasture or down a hill, with access along either side to the width of the “Queen’s chain,” or about sixty-six feet. In addition, New Zealand has an extensive network of “paper roads” across otherwise private property. These public right-of-ways were defined when the land was settled and surveyed, and they remain legally open to public use, even if roads were never built.

Perhaps most importantly, it is culturally acceptable in New Zealand for people to cross private property, although it is considered polite to ask when crossing private property near a farmhouse. Equally important, it is culturally unacceptable to lock people out. One local mentioned a neighbor who migrated to New Zealand from Pennsylvania and bought a large farm. The newcomers couldn’t legally close the public track across their land, but in order to discourage anyone from using it, they let the trail grow so thick with brush and tall grass that nobody wanted to go there anymore. The locals frown at the inhospitality of these American transplants!

Land along small streams are public right-of-ways in New Zealand. This walking track follows a stream across a farm.

Land along small streams are public right-of-ways in New Zealand. This walking track follows a stream across a farm.

The idea that people should have freedom to roam is not unique to New Zealand. It is also a long-standing tradition in Scandinavian countries, known as allemansrätten in Swedish or “the everyman’s right.” These centuries-old traditions have been coded into law in recent decades. In Norway, Sweden, and Finland, people have the right to hike, ski, camp, and forage for wild food on undeveloped private properties, provided they respect landowners and don’t harm the environment. Bicycling is also allowed where appropriate. While the public is not allowed to enter cultivated lands during the growing season or pastures when livestock are present, other times of the year are okay. Somewhat similar customs and laws are found in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Switzerland, Belarus, and the Czech Republic.

As a teenager I built a grass hut among the trees at the edge of a farm field near town, nurturing a healthy connection with nature.

As a teenager I built a grass hut among the trees at the edge of a farm field near town, nurturing a healthy connection with nature.

Scotland also has a longstanding tradition of public access to private lands, which was formally recognized in law with Scotland’s Land Reform Act of 2003. Citizens are allowed to walk, bicycle, ride horseback, and camp on private lands, provided they don’t damage the environment or interfere with farming or other private-land uses. England and Wales recently expanded public access with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, granting freedom to roam the open countryside.

In my home state of Montana, the freedom to roam has been a custom, tradition, and presumed right since the days of the frontier. As a teenager in the 1980s, I lived in Bozeman and walked nearby farm fields regularly, where I tracked everything from foxes to skunks in snow-covered fields. In a tangle of brush along an irrigation ditch, I built a hut of sticks and grass thatching, deepening my connection with nature. During weekends and summers, I went to my grandmother’s house in the country, where I walked for miles in every direction, crossing livestock fences all the way.

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomenon in Montana.

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomenon in Montana.

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomenon, largely introduced by newcomers who, oblivious to Montana’s tradition of openness, imported their cultural expectations with them. Orange paint on a fence post signifies the same thing as a No Trespassing sign, so we have gained a few signs and a lot of orange paint, while losing access to millions of acres of land. Sadly, there wasn’t a public debate about it, because our cultural values were not recorded or publicized, and the loss occurred slowly, property by property across the state. People were unaware that by posting No Trespassing signs, they were not only closing down access to their own land, but also encouraging their neighbors to do the same, such that everyone lost access, including themselves. Unfortunately, “the everyman’s right” to roam was never formalized into law, nor was it written down as a guidebook for new residents.

The cultural shift can be shocking to someone who experiences it for the first time. For example, one local rancher sold his property and retired. He was always pleased to see people out fishing the streams on his property, so he was alarmed and saddened to see that the new owners posted the property, and even he was not allowed to go back and walk the land he had called home for decades.

Montana landowners traditionally welcomed hikers and fisherman on their land. No Trespassing signs were largely introduced by newcomers to the state.

Montana landowners traditionally welcomed hikers and fisherman on their land. No Trespassing signs were largely introduced by newcomers to the state.

The Journey

In 1804 through 1806, Lewis and Clark led the Corps of Discovery on an expedition up the Missouri River, over the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia, in search of a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean. They may not have found the Northwest Passage they had hoped for, but their journey of discovery led the nation westward and continues to inspire people today.

Similarly, individual journeys of discovery can be very powerful experiences that deeply shape a person’s life. For example, after the devastating loss of her mother and her marriage, Cheryl Strayed rebooted her life alone on the trail, as told in her best-selling book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Her story was retold as a Hollywood movie played by Reese Witherspoon. Having the freedom to engage in a journey such as this is a basic need and fundamental human right, “the everyman’s right,” that should be easily accessible to all people, especially young adults who are searching for their path in life. Every person should have the opportunity to walk or paddle and camp to the horizon and beyond in their own journey of discovery.

A friend and I walked 500 miles across Montana in 1988, about half of which was across private lands.

A friend and I walked 500 miles across Montana in 1988, about half of which was across private lands.

I have undertaken several such journeys myself. In 1988, at the age of twenty, a friend and I walked five hundred miles across Montana, starting at my grandmother’s house in Pony and ending at Fort Union on the North Dakota border. We crossed private property for nearly half the trip, and rarely encountered landowners, but had largely positive encounters with those we met.

Our route took us to one of Ted Turner’s ranches, where we encountered a gate plastered with about twenty No Trespassing and Keep Out signs. Unfortunately, there was literally no other route available to us, so over the gate we went. The property manager wasn’t particularly enthusiastic to see us, but he allowed us to camp and move on. The next big ranch was also posted, but they invited us to join them for a nice hamburger dinner. Most people we met were supportive of our adventure. A few were mildly disgruntled and suggested that we should be responsible and get a job, but waved us onward. Journeys such as this have been greatly empowering, giving me the confidence and determination to follow my dreams in life.

The consequences of posting property runs much deeper than may be readily apparent. Locking people out can cultivate resentment and encourage rebellion and abuse. On the other hand, giving people expanded freedom to roam can foster a greater sense of stewardship and gratitude, which ultimately reduces vandalism and litter.

Having the freedom to roam across the countryside can help foster a greater sense of gratitude and stewardship.

Having the freedom to roam across the countryside can help foster a greater sense of gratitude and stewardship.

In our Green University, LLC internship program (www.GreenUniversity.com), we sometimes have students who act as if the property boundary is a cage, even when there are ample public lands nearby. They come from a culture where they feel confined to boxes, and it doesn’t occur to them that they are free to wander. They frequently feel trapped by society, that they are not free to live their own dreams. They are often so conditioned to being in a box that it never occurs to them to walk past the property boundary to walk the 100,000 acres of public lands in the Tobacco Root Mountains, just outside my door. I’ve met young people who are angry at society, angry at the machine of civilization, angry at the way the system enslaves and dehumanizes people. They are so accustomed to the experience of being trapped that they don’t recognize freedom even when the door is open and they can go anywhere they want. Other people may not feel the same depth of malcontent or they may not verbalize it the same, but the sense of confinement underpins some of the biggest issues we face as a society, from alcoholism to drug abuse, obesity, and a simmering cauldron of civil unrest that threatens to undermine our country.

While touring New Zealand, I appreciated the fact that litter was relatively scarce compared to the states. Yet there was some litter, and I wondered how much of it was dropped by American tourists who have lost a sense of connection and stewardship of the land. It also occurred to me that No Trespassing signs are in themselves a form of litter, an eyesore on the landscape. It was refreshing to travel in a place that wasn’t marred by glaring signs tacked to the fence posts.

Expanding Public Access

The logical citizen response to the rise of No Trespassing signs is to work for better access to public lands, which is essential, yet an inadequate step to meet the level of need. Here in Montana, we are blessed with large tracts of public lands, comprising nearly 30 percent of the total area of the state, and land managers have worked to secure formal public access to tracts that didn’t previously connect to public right-of-ways.

Ironically, public lands without public access can be lost not only to the public, but also to the private landowners that block access. For example, Beall Creek in the Tobacco Root Mountains has no formal public access, and as a result a wonderful forest trail has fallen into such disrepair that the watershed is largely unusable even to the people who live right there.

Montana retains a friendly trespass law, which states that a person is allowed to enter private property as long as it isn’t posted at any obvious entry points and the landowner hasn’t verbally or otherwise stated that the visitor is unwelcome.

Montana retains a friendly trespass law, which states that a person is allowed to enter private property as long as it isn’t posted at any obvious entry points and the landowner hasn’t verbally or otherwise stated that the visitor is unwelcome.

Fortunately, Montana retains a friendly trespass law, which states that a person is allowed to enter private property as long as it isn’t posted at any obvious entry points and the landowner hasn’t verbally or otherwise stated that the visitor is unwelcome. Any rural property that is not posted is theoretically open to public access, although it is always polite to ask first.

Montana also has some of the best stream access laws in the state, which have been codified in law and protected by the courts, thanks to the tireless efforts of advocacy groups, such as the Public Land/Water Access Association, Inc.. PLWA has successfully stopped numerous attempts by out-of-state landowners and their attorneys to claim the land for themselves and lock the public out. In some states the rivers are considered public, but the land underneath is not, such that a person is technically trespassing if they step out of a boat. But in Montana, anglers can float down a river and get out to fish or camp anywhere “within the ordinary high water mark,” provided that their camp is not too close to a neighboring home.

Montana is far behind other states in securing abandoned railroad beds for rail trails.

Montana is far behind other states in securing abandoned railroad beds for rail trails.

On the other hand, Montana is far behind other states in rails-to-trails opportunities. Other states have been proactive with legislation claiming abandoned railroads as public rail trails, but Montana has done nothing, letting the easements on most old railroad beds fall to private landowners, losing hundreds of miles of potential rail trails across the state. Advocacy groups are working to reclaim abandoned rails across public lands for trails, but railroad beds on private lands rarely become public again.

As an avid hiker, I’ve always spent my summers exploring public lands in the mountains, but when winter comes and the mountains are deep with snow, I forgo the winter boots and keep my regular shoes to hike across thousands of acres of low-elevation private lands, principally along the Jefferson River. I’ve come to know a lot of special places along the river, and I’ve been alarmed to see development and No Trespassing signs chip away at the integrity of the Jefferson.

Hiking and camping on private lands along the Jefferson River led to concern over subdivision, development, and “No Trespassing” signs on the river. It ultimately inpired me to found the Jefferson River Canoe Trail to help sustain the Montana traditions of open space and open access.

These experiences led to the founding of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail (www.JeffersonRiver.org) and our group efforts to secure quality public campsites and to encourage conservation easements along the river corridor. Water trails are especially valuable because they cut through private lands, allowing ordinary people to have their own personal journey of discovery.

As part of the effort to replace lost access, our state passed legislation allowing public use of state lands that are leased out to farmers and ranchers, provided there is legal access to those properties. The state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has also set up a block management program where landowners are paid a small supplement to keep their properties open to hunters. Strangely, it is considered trespassing to cross from one public property to another where the fences meet only at the corners. Even if the hiker or hunter doesn’t set foot down on the private land to either side, some private property owners somehow feel violated and have thus far killed legislative attempts to legalize corner crossings, but hopefully that will change in the near future.

These multi-faceted efforts to maintain or restore access definitely help, and Montana is already a leader in providing public access, yet we can do so much more to benefit Montanans and to provide a positive role model for other states to follow. What is needed most is a re-evaluation of our cultural expectations.

Reclaiming Our Heritage

The nonprofit Western Sustainability Exchange published a Welcome to the West guide to educate newcomers to Montana about key issues that many people don’t otherwise consider. For example, people often see a beautiful site and decide to build a house in the middle of it, not realizing that they are damaging exactly the asset they valued. All newcomers to the state should be provided with this Welcome to the West guide, and a section should be added to educate newcomers about the Montana tradition of open space and open access. We also need a statewide educational campaign to encourage landowners to paint their fence posts green to welcome healthy trespassing.

We need to reconnect young people with nature and foster an ethic of stewardship.

We need to reconnect young people with nature and foster an ethic of stewardship.

In addition, we need to reconnect our young people to the land to ensure that they will honor and respect both private and public property. One way to do that is to encourage partnerships between public schools and Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, such that every school adopts, monitors, and helps manage and maintain state parks and local fishing access sites. FWP can benefit from student labor to help repair damaged picnic tables, fire rings, outhouses, or other facilities, as well as help with weed control, picking up litter, and collecting data on vegetation and wildlife populations. The students can benefit from the experiential real-world opportunities while developing a sense of ownership and stewardship that will carry forward whenever they visit other sites around the state.

We can also expand the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC), encouraging young people to do a year of service between high school and college, working with the MCC to build and maintain trails, again cultivating an ethic of stewardship and a love for the outdoors that will stay with them for life.

In Montana and across our nation, outdoor recreational opportunities are essential to the wellbeing and quality of life of the people. In lieu of a codified “everyman’s right,” we need to expand water trails and rail trails, and facilitate access to existing public lands. Just as importantly, we need to initiate a dialogue about the longstanding tradition of public access to private lands and bring awareness and desire to reclaim our essential heritage to freely roam the open countryside.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) in Pony, Montana.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) in Pony, Montana.

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of numerous books and videos about sustainable living and reconnecting with nature. He is the founder and director of Outdoor Wilderness Living School, LLC (OWLS), dedicated to reconnecting children and nature. For adults, he founded Green University® LLC to “connect the dots from wilderness survival to sustainable living skills.” Elpel also founded HOPS Press, LLC and the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.


Check out:
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills

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The Cadaver in My Knee

"The ephemeral nature of life speaks to the deeper reality that we can only serve others."  This X-ray shows my bones, but not the torn ACL.

“The ephemeral nature of life speaks to the deeper reality that we can only serve others.” This X-ray shows my bones, but not the torn ACL.

      Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust. We take nothing with us. All our work and worry to get ahead in life is squandered on delusions of serving the self, while the ephemeral nature of life speaks to the deeper reality that we can only serve others. As the recent recipient of a cadaver graft, I feel deep gratitude toward the individual who chose to “pay it forward” to me, as I have strived to pay it forward to others. In the service of others we begin to see beyond our corporeal selves to the broader reality that we are all connected–we are all One.

      Death is the great equalizer, and neither wealth nor fame can alter our final destiny. We are but temporary caretakers of this world, stewarding what has been handed down to us in order that we may pass it along to future generations. Thus I especially appreciate the anonymous tissue donation to replace and reconstruct the torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) from my left knee.

A look inside my knee, after the torn ACL was removed, but before the new one was installed.

A look inside my knee, after the torn ACL was removed, but before the new one was installed.

      The operation to repair my knee with leftovers from a cadaver is an astonishing and somewhat morbidly fascinating miracle of modern medicine. I will never know who provided my new ACL or how they died, only that they were generous enough to allow themselves to be picked over for spare parts to help the living.

      The surgeon repurposed a patellar tendon (connected to the knee cap), with a plug of bone at each end, to serve as a new ACL inside my knee. The tissue was frozen to -70F to destroy any living material that might be rejected and attacked by my immune system, making me the inheritor of a wholly dead, yet fully functional tendon. The doctor adjusted the tension with a permanent screw, so that the tendon (and my knee) would be neither too tight nor too loose.

This X-ray was taken during surgery, showing the tools inside my femur.

This X-ray was taken during surgery, showing the tools inside my femur.

      Firmly secured in place, the tendon is immediately functional, even though it takes about six weeks for the bone plugs to fully fuse with my own bones, and a good deal of physical therapy before I am out hiking hundreds of miles again. Blood vessels will slowly repopulate the tendon, theoretically repairing and replacing it cell by cell until there might eventually be no trace of the donor tendon. With arthroscopic surgery, using small instruments and cameras, there are only a few small incisions on the outside of my knee, and minimal scarring. It is a gift I hope to honor and pass forward by doing my best to make a positive difference in this world for others.

      For better or worse, the temporary nature of life was deeply impressed upon me by the death of my father when I was twelve years old. Death became my “constant companion,” as Carlos Castaneda described it in his books about the teachings of Don Juan. Normal people seemed absurdly complacent, content to work meaningless jobs and fill idle time with hollow conversations about sports, celebrities, and television. Yet none of it seemed particularly important against the reality that death was poised to strike its final blow at any moment.

"Worthwhile actions must necessarily reach beyond the self in the service of others."  This X-ray shows the screw left inside my bone.

“Worthwhile actions must necessarily reach beyond the self in the service of others.” This X-ray shows the screw left inside my bone.

      Life is short — a few orbits around the sun, and its over. I learned to measure the importance of any potential course of action against the knowledge that death was stalking me, that there was limited time to act. Moreover, I saw that there was nothing in this world that I could take with me. In the annals of time, the individual self is dust in the wind, a short-term investment that inevitably and literally goes belly-up. Worthwhile actions, therefore, must necessarily reach beyond the self in the service of others. I have strived to pay it forward ever since, although it may not always seem that way from an outside perspective.

      On the surface, many aspects of my life may seem self-indulgent and self-absorbed. I live in a nice house. I keep my office up to date with recently new computers. My name is blazoned across my books, videos, and hundreds of web pages. And I am frequently in the news, usually because I call reporters and invite them to come write a story about whatever project I happen to be working on. Yet, from my perspective, the self is never the end goal, but rather the means or tool towards the broader goal of making a positive contribution to the world.

One week after knee surgery, my knee was swollen, yet looking remarkably good for all the work inside.

One week after knee surgery, my knee was swollen, yet looking remarkably good for all the work inside.

      For example, when I undertook construction of my home twenty-five years ago, I sought to demonstrate that adopting a green lifestyle could be more economical than following a traditional route. I wanted to show that it was still possible to live the American Dream – to own a nice home without a mortgage — and to do so in a more-or-less green and sustainable manner. I wanted to avoid getting stuck in an uninspiring job and working the rest of my life to make rent or mortgage payments, and I needed a quality place to live, rest, and recover in my efforts to make the world a better place. Thus my home is, and always has been, a tool for me to serve others, and that is my approach to just about everything I do in life. I cannot claim to be overly successful in making a significant positive difference in the world, but that is the goal that motivates me in just about every aspect of life, from exploring alternative building methods to writing books, working on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, or teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills to kids.

      In terms of my knee, the gift I received will once again enable me to play, run, and engage in wildlife stalking games with kids in our Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) programs for public schools, and it will allow me to undertake backcountry adventures with young adults who seek a more intimate connection with nature. Above all, it will facilitate my being fit and healthy to continue working to make a better future for our beleaguered planet.

      In the grand scheme of things, perhaps none of it really matters. We are but one insignificant planet in the far reaches of an insignificant galaxy, out of hundreds of millions of galaxies, each one containing hundreds of millions of stars. A few more loops around the sun, and myself and everyone alive today will be maggot fodder. Kids seldom know the names of their great grandparents or anything about them, and even the work of architects and authors typically disappears after a few decades or centuries. Marble headstones on graves are but passing blips against the tick-tock of time.

      Everything we do, good, bad, or indifferent, will be utterly forgotten in the not too distant future. Time will continue to march forward. Tectonic plates will inch around the world, making new continents. Our sun will slowly burn up its fuel supply and eventually swell to become a red giant, consuming our planet and everything on it. We will one day be reduced to stardust, just as we were stardust once before. And maybe that’s the point.

"The self is but a temporary illusion that masks the greater truth that we are all in this together. " Back on my feet again, and ready to go to work.

“The self is but a temporary illusion that masks the greater truth that we are all in this together. ” Back on my feet again, and ready to go to work.

      The self is but a temporary illusion that masks the greater truth that we are all in this together. The hydrogen and helium that made up the early stars fused together to make the heavier elements that were blown across space and time to build new stars, new planets, new life, and our very bones, muscles, and skin. We are as much a part of the Heavens as this cadaver graft is part of me, is becoming me, is me, and in a cosmic sense, always was me. When we peer through the telescope to the ends of the Universe, we ultimately see ourselves. We are not mere passengers along for the ride, we are the Universe looking at itself. We are all One.

      Our individual lives are intrinsically insignificant, except possibly in terms of this grand experiment called life, the living Universe, evolving, growing, learning, and perhaps becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. When we look beyond ourselves, we contribute towards a greater universal understanding and perhaps a Universal consciousness. At a time when life is imperiled on our planet as never before, it is more important than ever that we all work towards making a positive difference to pass the gift of life along to future generations.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit and numerous other books.

Interesting stuff?
Challenge your preconceptions about reality:
Roadmap to Reality

      This video shows an ACL reconstruction using an allograft or cadaver tendon, very similar to the surgery that was preformed on my knee. However, it is sped up to compress the entire surgery into just a few minutes, making it look like they are wildly and carelessly cutting, drilling, and operating on the patient. I am thankful that I did not watch this or any other surgery videos ahead of my own surgery!

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Save The Planet ‐ 12 Cents

Guest blog by Marc Elpel, September 27, 2014

Written by Marc Elpel. Marc has studies in engineering and finance, and has been a key contributor in management and design development for companies in the fields of renewable energy devices, bio-technology, and medical devices.

Written by Marc Elpel. Marc has studies in engineering and finance, and has been a key contributor in management and design development for companies in the fields of renewable energy devices, bio-technology, and medical devices.

      The Climate Change argument has shifted from theory to reality, and we are now facing the initial impacts of increasingly erratic storms, floods, droughts, and forest fires. We are responding to the crisis with united apathy, as if saving ourselves isn’t worth the trouble. Sometimes the problem seems too big to tackle. We are so dependent on fossil fuel vehicles, for example, that it seems nearly impossible to do anything about it in any meaningful timeframe. Most of us cannot afford a $75,000 Tesla to commute to work, nor can we cover the upfront financial commitment to “go solar” at home. We wait for the promise of high-efficiency cars and cheap solar power, but we otherwise do nothing while news reports grow more dire every day. And yet, we can offset all carbon emissions from automobiles at a ridiculously affordable price. It is really a question of priorities:  would you pay 12¢ to change the course of global warming?

      As a country we are set in our ways.  We have our cars, and our lifestyles are based on commuting and travel. Climate change reports inform us of the problem, but we still need to commute to work, so we continue pumping gas, and the climate issues continue to compound.  Since we have not stopped driving, I set out to answer the question ‘What is the “carbon cost” of a gallon of gasoline?’ In other words, if we have to use gas until we have a better option, what is the environmental impact of the carbon in the gas, and can I do something about it?

One gallon of gasoline.

A gallon of gasoline weighs about 6.3 pounds, consisting mostly of carbon, plus a small amount of hydrogen and a few impurities. Through combustion each carbon atom combines with two atoms of heavier oxygen atoms, resulting about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

      Through miracles in chemistry, each gallon of gas (weighing about 6.3 pounds) creates approximately 20 pounds of carbon, and 7 pounds of water[1][2]. The carbon numbers change depending on various factors, including type of fuel, octane rating, and calculation approximations.  For calculations we will use 20 pounds of carbon per gallon.

      Carbon cost as represented by web sites selling carbon offsets run approximately $5 to 6 per thousand pounds of carbon [4][5]. Using $6.00 per thousand pounds, we find the cost per gallon is 20 pounds carbon times $6.00 per 1000 pounds, or $0.12 per gallon. At 12 cents per gallon of gas we offset the carbon burned driving “carbon neutral.” With a national average gas price of $3.65 per gallon, 12 cents represents 3% of the cost per gallon.

      In 2012, USA annual gas usage was 133 billion (133,000,000,000!) gallons. At 12 cents surcharge per gallon, we would have $16 billion in carbon offset money available for reforestation and purchasing renewable energy. While this money could be applied to all forms of carbon reduction, we can look at applying all of that amount to solar installations to see how far it goes. Note that this analysis can be performed for wind or hydroelectric… the numbers shift slightly but conclusions remain the same.

Solar panels.

Applied to solar power, a 12¢ gallon carbon offset surcharge would cover the cost to install clean solar power on 1.2 million homes every year.

      Utility scale installed solar power cost has dropped to $2.10 per watt [8]. Using $16 billion annually from a 12 cent surcharge on fuel, we could purchase 7,600,000 KW of installed solar, for an annual production of 13,832,000,000 KWH of power! (See reference [9] for calculations between installed watts and kilowatts per year.) The average household power usage in the US is 10,837 KWH, so in one year we can switch over 1.2 million homes to clean solar energy.  Each year, we could switch another 1.2 million homes to solar if the $16 billion in revenue stayed constant. If we leverage the money by paying half of the install cost for utility companies we can expand that number to 2.4 million households per year or approximately 2% of the homes in the USA converted to solar each year. Within 10 years, with no other actions taken, we will have converted ~20% of the entire country’s residential power needs to solar (or wind, or hydroelectric…)! 

Car tire.

“Offsetting a 3% surcharge means going from 29 to 30 MPG… an almost undetectable change in driving habits.”

      As we try to deal with climate change, politicians debate whether we “can afford” the costs of the environmental impact. They argue we will lose our competitive edge in world markets if we go green. And while they debate the important issues of more efficient vehicle  standards and new power regulations, we continue down the road to our demise. So what about the 12 cent cost? Can we afford the 12 cents? For individuals who fear the extra gas cost, this 3% can be made up (and more!) by slowing down 5 MPH.  The fueleconomy.gov web site states: “You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas”[10]. If you can’t slow down, then carpool once per month and you offset the usage as well. Combine trips to the store, or commute off hours when traffic is less. Offsetting a 3% surcharge means going from 29 to 30 MPG… an almost undetectable change in driving habits.

      The economic impacts of offsetting our gas usage will lower our dependence on foreign oil and will generate jobs in building and maintaining renewable energy utilities. Funds can also support private solar installations and help individuals bring their power bills to zero. Funds used in planting trees will enhance open space and parks used by all, while lowering summer temperatures in our towns and cities, further reducing climate change caused by coal fired electric generation. One might even argue that lowering our oil needs by installation of more renewable energy will ultimately lower the price per gallon, making fuel less expensive in the future. And ultimately, back to where we started, immediately responding to global warming will reduce the enormous financial cost otherwise required to respond to climate change impacts.

Dying forest.

“Solving the climate change impact from transportation does not require waiting for better cars – we have a solution available today to immediately mitigate the real time impact of our gasoline addiction.”

      Solving the climate change impact from transportation does not require waiting for better cars – we have a solution available today to immediately mitigate the real time impact of our gasoline addiction.

      Place a carbon surcharge of 12 cents on each gallon and use the proceeds to invest in renewable energy.  As a country, tying the environmental cost of gas to its use allows us to react today and reinvest in a greener future. Cities (such as Los Angeles) can implement this ahead of the federal government, immediately using their transportation challenges to solve their local power and environmental needs.

      We may not all be able to trade in our vehicles for clean transportation today, but as a society we can take this simple action and dramatically change our future.

      America has some of the cleanest cities in the world as we as individuals, and as a society, clean‐up after ourselves. We have recycling policies and incentives, and core charges to ensure old batteries stay out of landfills. Yet while we would not consider dropping garbage as we go, when faced with the largest manmade ecological disaster of human history, we spew our carbon without regard to the pollution we leave behind. Initially we did not know – or did not understand – the impact and consequences of our emissions. Now that we do, is it not worth twelve cents to save the planet?

[1] http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/contentIncludes/co2_inc.htm
[2] http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=307&t=11
[3] http://jg2090.newsvine.com/_news/2009/09/02/3216613‐burning‐1‐gallon‐of‐gasoline‐produces‐20‐pounds‐of‐co2
[4] http://www.carbonfund.org/
[5] http://www.terrapass.com/
[6] http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=23&t=10
[7] http://www.pv‐tech.org/editors_blog/we_need_to_talk_about_utility_scale_solar
[8] http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/Is‐Utility‐Scale‐Solar‐Really‐Cheaper‐Than‐Rooftop‐Solar
[9] http://www.solar‐estimate.org/?page=solar‐calculations
[10] http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/driveHabits.jsp

See also these related posts:

Frack this Planet
Too Many Jobs?

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