Category Archives: Public Access

One Public Lands Agency for All

Anyone looking at western public land maps will quickly notice the multi-colored hues of different federal management agencies, including green for the U.S. Forest Service, yellow for Bureau of Land Management (BLM), typically dark green or purple for the National Park Service, plus various shades for the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Other than the Forest Service, each of these federal land agencies exists within the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Forest Service originated to manage forest reserves, and the BLM originated to manage mineral rights and grazing leases, yet both agencies have coalesced towards increasingly similar missions and often cooperate with each other on projects with overlapping jurisdictions. Therefore, we should logically consider the potential benefits of merging the Forest Service and BLM together, or potentially merging all public lands agencies together as one entity.

Agency vs. Agency

In the 1800s, most federal lands were managed by the General Land Office within the Interior Department for sale to the public.

Forestlands were eventually transferred to the Agriculture Department through a series of moves that stemmed from an 1876 appropriations bill. A bill to fund a forestry study within the Interior Department failed, so the appropriation was added to the Agriculture Department budget instead, leading to the establishment of the Division of Forestry in 1881, later renamed as the Bureau of Forestry in 1901 and renamed again as the Forest Service in 1905.

Meanwhile, the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 allowed Presidents to withdraw and protect timberlands from disposal, and The Transfer Act of 1905 moved those forest reserves from the Interior Department to the Agriculture Department to be managed by the newly named Forest Service.[1]

In 1946 the General Land Office and U.S. Grazing Service were merged together to form the Bureau of Land Management. Its purpose was to manage miscellaneous scraps of land that were neither set aside as forest reserves nor claimed by homesteaders. Although the BLM and Forest Service are different federal agencies, they often share common borders and similar management plans.

For example, my home in Pony, Montana is nestled into the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains. The mountain range lies mostly within Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, administered by the Forest Service, while surrounded by a fringe of BLM parcels, requiring separate offices, duplicate personnel, different management plans, separate maintenance crews, and a constant stream of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) back and forth between them.

Tobacco Root Mountains

Like many western mountain ranges, the U.S. Forest Service manages the core of the Tobacco Root Mountains as National Forest, while the Bureau of Land Management manages scattered parcels around the perimeter.

Although timber sales are predominantly the domain of the Forest Service, the BLM also conducts timber sales, as happened just up the road from my home. And when a mining company did a short-term project in the watershed, both agencies had to dedicate personnel towards writing Environmental Assessments, collecting public input, coordinating with the reciprocal agency, and issuing permits.

From the map shown above it seems immediately apparent that any BLM lands bordering national forest should be transferred to the Forest Service to consolidate and simplify public land management. However, there isn’t an obvious line that should separate what stays with the BLM versus what transfers to the Forest Service without leaving behind other fractured land management issues. It is more sensible to merge all lands from both agencies together, eliminating one federal agency altogether.

The Forest Service and BLM both manage for multiple uses of public lands. Across the West, they manage for recreation by providing public campgrounds, roads, trails, trailheads, vault toilets, and the associated weed control and maintenance. Both agencies manage wilderness areas and a portion of our national monuments. The Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area here in southwest Montana, for example, includes both BLM and Forest Service lands.

Lee Metcalf Wilderness

Montana’s Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area includes both BLM and Forest Service lands.

Both agencies oversee grazing permits with private ranch operations. Both agencies must employ recreation specialists, grazing specialists, mining specialists, timber specialists, wildlife biologists, fire-fighting crews, and a litany of secretaries, managers, supervisors, and public relations specialists.

Our cash-strapped federal agencies are unable to afford such superfluous duplication. Decades of federal budget cuts have necessitated extreme belt-tightening. As noted by a local trail maintenance employee, there were sixty seasonal workers maintaining forest trails in the district when he started work thirty years ago, yet now he is the last one. Some projects are parceled out to private contractors. Other trails are neglected, abandoned, or maintained by volunteer groups such as Backcountry Horsemen.

Additional layoffs have been driven by escalating fire-fighting costs due to encroachment of housing developments bordering federal lands, past management decisions that allowed greater buildup of fuels, and warmer, drier conditions due to climate change.[2] Fire-fighting costs rose from 15 to 55 percent of the Forest Service budget over a twenty-year span[3], forcing drastic cuts to core services. Local district offices have been closed to consolidate remaining employees into ever more centralized offices farther and farther from the forests they manage. The few remaining employees must manage remotely, rarely leaving the office to step foot on the lands they manage. As noted by one former Forest Service employee, whenever they actually left the office, they typically spent six hours per work day driving: three hours to get to a site, one hour to work there, and three hours to drive back. This is no way to manage our public lands. The system is broke and broken.

Failures and Corrections

Proposals to return forest reserves to the Interior Department or to otherwise consolidate public land agencies were debated shortly after the initial separation, appearing in different incarnations through nearly every administration of the 1900s. These efforts were summarized in a 2008 study by the Congressional Research Service titled, “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.”[4] Some administrations proposed transferring the Forest Service to the Interior. Others proposed transferring the General Land Office (predecessor to the BLM) to the Agriculture Department. Meanwhile, national parks were carved out of national forests and transferred back to the Interior under jurisdiction of the National Park Service, established in 1916, a move that was opposed by Forest Service officials.

Following formation of the BLM, proposals surfaced to merge the BLM and Forest Service together. Different administrations favored mostly Agriculture, but sometimes the Interior Department as the principal public lands agency. Several administrations proposed combining the two agencies with others to form a new Department of Natural Resources or some variation thereof. All such efforts died due to interference from political infighting, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, special interests, and an ongoing tug-of-war between the Interior and Agriculture over the right to manage our nation’s public lands.

The 2008 study was initiated in response to rising wildfire costs in the search for means to make the federal agencies more fiscally efficient. The report outlined potential issues and variables to merging the agencies, without actually formulating any proposals.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a similar report in 2009 titled, “Federal Land Management: Observations of a Possible Move of the Forest Service into the Department of Interior.” The GAO report did not address merging the agencies, just transferring the Forest Service over to the Interior, which offered few tangible benefits without actually merging the duplicate agencies.[5]

Unable to reach an agreement on merging the agencies, Congress authorized the Interior and Agriculture departments to cooperate where convenient, starting in 1998 and solidified in subsequent years. Known as a “Service First” policy, as of 2012, “The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, subject to annual review of Congress, may establish programs to conduct projects, planning, permitting, leasing, contracting and other activities, either jointly or on behalf of one another; may co-locate in Federal offices and facilities leased by an agency of either Department; and may promulgate special rules as needed to test the feasibility of issuing unified permits, applications, and leases.”[6]

In effect, Congress gave broad authorization to the Interior and Agriculture departments to function as one entity to whatever extent deemed practical. However, one of the key challenges to cooperation is that public land agencies developed different rules and procedures for similar functions. For example, is it not uncommon for ranchers to hold grazing leases with both the BLM and Forest Service where agency lands intermingle, but with different laws applying to each lease. If both agencies cooperate as one, the rancher need only meet with one range conservation specialist, but that specialist must understand the rules and procedures of both agencies.[7]

To date, interagency cooperation remains more symbolic than substantive. A list of cooperating projects reveals that the BLM and Forest Service share a common campus in Missoula, Montana, but not the same buildings. The Forest Service pays the BLM its share of a joint janitorial contract. The BLM pays Forest Service employees for cutting timber, and employees from both agencies share many resources. The BLM purchased storage lockers for Forest Service fire employees to store their equipment.[8] These are two separate federal agencies attempting to cooperate from the bottom up in the absence of leadership to merge them together from the top down.

To deal with escalating fire costs, Congress explored the idea of creating an independent U.S. Fire Service. However, part of the fire management effort by the Forest Service and BLM includes ecological management, such as fuels reduction projects, controlled burns, and cooperative timber programs with neighboring private landowners. An independent fire agency would clash with BLM and Forest Service goals.[9]

Congress ultimately agreed in 2018 to treat wildfires like other natural disasters by authorizing an additional $2 billion per year in fire-fighting costs to be shared between the BLM and Forest Service as needed, hopefully reducing the fiscal drain on public land agencies, although the funding doesn’t begin until 2020 and may not keep up with escalating fire-fighting costs.[10]

Through increased cooperation, the BLM and Forest Service are slowly merging into a single entity without actually making the final leap. It is conceivable that the two agencies could ultimately integrate rules and procedures until both utilize the same paperwork. Once merged at the ground level, it would be natural to take the final step to unite the upper hierarchy. Then again, why wait?

Re-emerging the Merge

The split between today’s BLM and Forest Service took root in the 1876 appropriations bill that directed forest funding to the Department of Agriculture instead of the Department of the Interior. Most other public lands are managed by various agencies within the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service should logically be transferred to that department. The benefits of merely transferring the agency may be negligible, but there is much to be gained by also combining the BLM and Forest Service as a single agency within the Interior.

While the Forest Service principally manages forests and the BLM principally manages rangeland and desert, neither agency is exclusively dedicated to one ecotype or another. For example, in addition to National Forests, the Forest Service oversees National Grasslands, properties that were acquired and rehabilitated by the federal government in the wake of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.[11] Therefore, it is reasonable to merge the BLM into the Forest Service while moving the Forest Service to the Interior. The expanded Forest Service would then oversee national forests, national grasslands, and national deserts, all within the Department of the Interior.

Although the BLM oversees more acres of land, the Forest Service is the larger agency with a greater budget and nearly three times as many employees. The Forest Service name should be retained, since it is older, more widely recognized, and less cumbersome than the “Bureau of Land Management.” This proposal completely eliminates a federal agency, the BLM, while retaining all of its offices and employees within the expanded U.S. Forest Service.

Comparing the Forest Service and BLM

Although the BLM oversees more acres of land, the Forest Service is the larger agency with a greater budget and nearly three times as many employees.

Regardless of organizational changes, the land itself would continue to be managed according to pre-existing management plans, at least until those plans are due for revision. All prior programs and commitments would remain ongoing. Merging the BLM and Forest Service would gradually reduce staff duplication, thereby freeing employees to focus on other work that has been neglected due to budget cuts.

The expanded agency would effectively regain local offices in many communities through the merge. If a Forest Service office closed due to budget cuts, but a BLM office still remains, that office now serves the combined public lands from both agencies, bringing forest management back to local communities. Similarly, any existing Forest Service office would now manage former BLM lands in its vicinity, bringing management closer to the land.

There is no need to make such a merger hasty, stressful, or expensive. BLM and Forest Service employees could show up to the same job at the same office, doing exactly the same work as before. Only their letterhead and a sign on the door would be different. Uniforms and badges could be replaced at the regular schedule. Signs could initially be replaced as they wear out or modified with smaller signs or stickers signifying the new agency. The expanded agency could set benchmark goals, such as to switch all BLM grazing leases over to Forest Service leases within five years.

Since the BLM and Forest Service are already cooperatively working together, it is sensible to finalize the marriage and give the expanded agency an official name and address, that being the U.S. Forest Service within the Department of the Interior. That is a small change in comparison to other Cabinet-level shuffling efforts, such as creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, which cobbled together federal agencies from seven different Cabinet level departments.[12] It is time to make an official legislative proposal and make it happen.

Amended Organizational Chart for the U.S. Department of the Interior

Since the BLM and Forest Service are already cooperatively working together, it is sensible to finalize the marriage and give the expanded agency an official name and address, that being the U.S. Forest Service within the Department of the Interior.

Alternative Mega Merge Options

Merging the BLM and Forest Service into a single agency would greatly streamline public lands management while reducing bureaucracy and redundancy. Continuing this line of reasoning, additional efficiencies could theoretically be attained by merging additional federal land management agencies into a single entity. For example, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service presently works across boundaries with the BLM, Forest Service, National Park Service, and other federal lands agencies, while managing its own National Wildlife Refuges. Every agency hires its own wildlife biologists, and part of their job is to coordinate with USFWS wildlife biologists.

In north-central Montana, for example, USFWS manages the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the smaller, embedded UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, surrounded by public lands managed by the BLM. Wild animals do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries, so USFWS and BLM personnel must coordinate to manage the collective area. If the BLM were merged into the Forest Service, it wouldn’t effectively enhance the management situation. USFWS would still manage the middle, but within Forest Service land instead of BLM land.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge

The Charles M. Russell and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuges are surrounded by BLM lands, requiring cooperative management between the two different federal agencies.

Therefore, it could be argued that the Forest Service and USFWS should also be merged together. If either agency’s name were retained, that agency would then be in charge of managing all our national forests, national grasslands, national deserts, and national wildlife refuges.

On the other hand, USFWS also works across national parks, monuments, and recreation areas, while offering wildlife enhancement programs on private lands, making an agency merge less practical. A more probable solution is to embed USFWS employees within other agencies. For example, instead of the Forest Service hiring wildlife biologists, USFWS would place their own biologists within Forest Service offices, while the Forest Service would take over management of national wildlife refuges, smoothing out management across borders.

Similarly, this expanded Forest Service could take over management of campgrounds and other recreational lands currently managed by the Bureau of Reclamation or Army Corps of Engineers, which presently hire their own specialists for these tasks.

Consolidating federal land management into a single agency would simplify maps and management, where all federal lands and campgrounds are managed by a single entity, except that we have not yet included the National Park Service. Here again, there is significant duplication where separate federal agencies share common borders.

Consider the Pryor Mountains of south-central Montana. Half the land is managed by the Forest Service and half by the BLM. In addition, BLM lands also border Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which is managed by the National Park Service. Overlapping boundaries with all three federal agencies, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is cooperatively managed between them, requiring triplicate personnel and paperwork and numerous meetings and MOUs back and forth between the different entities.

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range

Overlapping boundaries with the BLM, Forest Service, and the National Park Service, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is cooperatively managed between them, requiring triplicate personnel and paperwork and numerous meetings and MOUs back and forth between the different entities.

Management issues are also evident in roads within the Pryor Mountains. Quality roads within Custer National Forest end at the forest boundary. Access on the northwest side traverses heavily rutted clay roads across Crow Indian lands that are only passable when dry. Access from the southeast side traverses similarly poor roads across BLM land, greatly limiting the ability to enter or exit the Pryor Mountains. Merging the BLM and Forest Service and potentially all federal lands agencies together can facilitate more consistent management with less duplication and waste.

In this mega merge scenario, the National Park Service would be elevated to the prevailing public lands agency, absorbing the BLM and Forest Service as well as USFWS lands and other federal public lands. The Park Service already manages national parks, national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, etc., so why not also national forests, national grasslands, national deserts, and national wildlife refuges?

A national forest would still be managed with the existing rules as a national forest, but with Forest Service employees rebranded as Park Service employees and all federal land managers working in one theoretically cohesive agency.

Some people might contend that the mega merge would create confusion between national parks and national forests. However, many people who live far from national forests refer to them as national parks anyway, since it is all public land open to recreation and camping. Our national forests effectively function as parks, but with looser rules for camping, recreating, cutting firewood, and hunting, while also allowing commercial grazing, logging, and mining activities.

Consolidating all public lands agencies within the National Park Service is the most sensible, efficient long-term plan, although undoubtedly more politically controversial than merely merging the BLM and Forest Service. In the final analysis, federal policy isn’t determined by what is good or optimal, but what is politically achievable. From that standpoint, merging the BLM and Forest Service within the Department of the Interior is a reasonable and potentially achievable goal, provided someone will assume leadership to shepherd the legislation through Congress.

Elpel.info logo.Thomas J. Elpel is the author of seven books on wilderness survival, botany, and sustainable living, including Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams. He is president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the founder/director of Green University LLC of Pony, Montana.

Notes:

[1] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008. URL: http://nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/crs/RL34772.pdf.

[2] Moseley, Cassandra. “Why wildfires are bigger and harder to control.” EarthSky Voices. August 2, 2018. URL: http://earthsky.org/earth/why-wildfires-bigger-harder-to-control-wildfire-season-2018.

[3] “Forest Service Wildland Fire Suppression Costs Exceed $2 Billion.” Press Release. U.S. Department of Agriculture. September 14, 2017. URL: https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2017/09/14/forest-service-wildland-fire-suppression-costs-exceed-2-billion.

[4] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008.

[5] “Federal Land Management: Observations on a Possible Move of the Forest Service into the Department of the Interior.” U.S. Government Accountability Office. February 2009. URL: https://www.gao.gov/assets/290/286048.pdf.

[6] “Laws Authorizing Service First.” URL: https://www.fs.fed.us/servicefirst/authority-legislation.shtml.

[7] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008.

[8] “Service First Locations: Montana.” URL: https://www.fs.fed.us/servicefirst/sf-loc-mt.shtml.

[9] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008.

[10] Scruggs, Gregory. “Wildfire funding fix will take ‘a period of years’ to protect U.S. forests.” Reuters. March 26, 2018. URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-fires-forests/wildfire-funding-fix-will-take-a-period-of-years-to-protect-u-s-forests-idUSKBN1H21AT.

[11] “United States National Grassland.” Wikipedia. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_National_Grassland.

[12] “United States Department of Homeland Security.” Wikipedia. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Department_of_Homeland_Security.

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Sweden versus America

What can we learn from each other?

Sweden vs. America: What can we learn from each other?

Sweden vs. America: What can we learn from each other?

Every country, every culture has something to teach. Dating a Swede for the past two years has led to numerous conversations contrasting our two countries. What is better about Sweden? What is better about America? In the ideal world, people would cherry-pick the best customs and laws from every culture to create a more optimal human society. Unfortunately, people are stubborn and change is slow. Yet conversations and sharing can plant seeds of change that take root over time. This essay compares and contrasts six broad areas of personal interest, revealing opportunities to improve quality of life in both our countries.

Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside.

Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside.

  1. Land of the Free, or Not?

America is often championed as a land of freedom, yet Americans are among the least-free peoples in the developed world. We are everywhere confronted with “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs that effectively lock us out of our own country. In comparison, Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside. The public is allowed to hike, camp, and forage on private land in Sweden, provided that individuals are respectful, don’t trample crops or harass livestock, and don’t intrude on the landowner privacy, such as by pitching a tent near a home.

Similarly, although one cannot legally drive on a private road in Sweden, it is perfectly okay to walk, bicycle, or ride your horse down that same road. Swedes naturally respect private property and maintain positive relationships with landowners. (Click here for details and exceptions.) America would be a much nicer place if we emulated allemansrätten here, as detailed in my more extensive essay, Posted: Please Trespass.

Counter-intuitively, the Swedish right to roam doesn’t include the right to hunt or fish. Hunting and fishing rights largely belong to private landowners, who typically participate in regional cooperatives to manage leases. For example, we did a week-long, 116 km (72 mile) canoe trip on Sweden’s largest river, the Klarälven, which crossed through three different cooperatives. Each cooperative issues a separate fishing license, which must be purchased in person at different towns along the way, from stores that may or may not be open. (Click here for details.) In the U.S., hunting and fishing is managed by individual states. A fishing license in Montana, for example, is good throughout the state. If you can legally access the water then you can legally fish there.

Overall, Swedes enjoy more freedom than Americans. However, Americans recognize other basic rights that Swedes do not. For example, the need for a toilet is dictated by bodily functions, making it a basic human necessity and a fundamental right according to American customs. Free public toilets are often abundant in the states. Americans also expect free access to toilets in most private businesses, including grocery stories, office supply stores, and banks. Free toilets are comparatively rare across most of Europe. Public institutions, such as museums, are often vastly underserved for the number of visitors, and many public places, such as train stations, offer only coin-operated toilets. In Sweden, the typical cost to access a public toilet is 10 krona ($1.30). Swedes can ask to use toilets in private businesses, but it is culturally uncommon to do so.

Swedish houses.

New houses in Sweden averaged 893 square feet in 2009, compared to 2,164 square feet in America, trending towards 2,700 square feet today.

  1. Everything is Bigger in America

It is well known that portion sizes are smaller in European countries than in America. A “large” cup at a fast food restaurant is equivalent to a small cup in the states. For better or worse, Americans typically have bigger houses, bigger trucks, bigger stores, bigger containers, bigger portion sizes, and bigger bellies.

Family size has shrunk over recent decades, yet house sizes have significantly increased, at least in the states. Current statistics are hard to find, but new houses in Sweden averaged 893 square feet in 2009, compared to 2,164 square feet in America, trending towards 2,700 square feet today. Americans possess more indoor space, often chock full of toys ranging from treadmills to pool tables.

Ditto for recreational vehicles. Few Swedes own campers, preferring to rent camper vans as needed, offering about 80 square feet of living space. In comparison, many Americans park oversized RVs and motorhomes in the driveway, with larger models exceeding 400 square feet and some new models exceeding $200,000.

Cars and trucks are also larger on average in the states than in Sweden. I had one neighbor who drove an oversize, 12 mpg pickup with a one-ton haul capacity, which she used to haul her 50-pound child 15 miles to school and back (four trips x 15 miles daily). Not surprisingly, Americans consume 50% more oil per capita than Swedes.

America has vastly bigger stores than Sweden, including numerous “big box” stores such as Walmart, Costco, or Target. Aside from Ikea, Sweden’s own big box chain, most Swedes shop at smaller, specialized stores.

Container sizes and portion sizes are also larger in the states. Coming from Sweden, my girlfriend is astounded by our 60-ounce peanut butter jars and 3-pound bags of M&Ms, all at affordable prices. Before going home, she stops at the grocery store, filling empty space in her suitcase with peanut butter, oversize cans of beans, pancake mix, brownie mix, and anything else she can squeeze in the load.

On the surface, bigger seems better. But is it really? Americans are plagued by more square footage to heat and cool, vacuum, paint, and organize. Americans are vastly wealthy in possessions, yet often unfathomably indebted. We pay less for fuel, but buy more of it. We “super size” our meals for a bargain price, yet we pay for it with bigger bellies, reduced mobility, and arguably a lower quality of life. Not surprisingly, Swedes live an average of three years longer than Americans.

Swedish Coins

The loose change pictured here, leftover from my travels, adds up to 47 krona or approximately US$5.77. Similar denominations would add up to 47¢.

  1. Money Matters

Although Sweden is a member of the European Union, the country has thus far retained its own currency, the krona, rather than adopting the Euro. As with the Euro, the krona has substantial value for loose change. For example, 1 krona, the Swedish equivalent of a penny, is worth approximately US12¢, while the 10 krona coin is worth about $1.25. The loose change pictured here, leftover from my travels, adds up to 47 krona or approximately US$5.77. In other words, loose change has real value, unlike the U.S., where similar denominations would add up to 47¢.

Traveling in both Sweden and Italy, I noticed that coins were convenient for cash transactions. Larger denomination coins are common in either country, such as the 20 krona coin ($2.46) in Sweden or a 2 Euro coin in Italy ($2.35), so a handful of pocket change might add up to US$10 or $20, making coins at least as convenient as paper currency.

In comparison, American coins lack sufficient value to make ordinary purchases, consuming an enormous amount of time for customers or vendors to count out worthless change. Coin currency could be greatly improved in the U.S. if we discontinued the penny and nickel and potentially the dime. The U.S. Mint would greatly prefer that Americans use $1 coins, which cost less than shredding and reprinting worn out $1 bills. Adding a $2 coin and possibly a $5 coin would simplify coin transactions and likely make $1 coins much more popular.

On the other hand, while coin transactions are easier in Sweden, the nation is actually leading the world transition towards a cashless economy. Overall, cash transactions are rapidly declining. Checks are virtually unknown and unimaginable in Sweden. I received incredulous stares when I described using checks in the states. People prefer to pay via online payments and credit cards. Even credit card use is beginning to fade as commerce transitions to all-digital payment systems.

Visby Medieval Festival

At the Medieval Festival in Visby, Gottland, the juxtaposition of customers wearing centuries-old clothing while buying lunch with smart phones created a strangely incongruous scene.

This trend towards digital commerce was especially evident at the Medieval Festival in Gotland. As might be logically expected, cash still circulated at this old-time market. Yet most vendors also boldly displayed SWIFT code numbers for digital payments. Standing in line at a Medieval food vendor, the juxtaposition of customers wearing centuries-old clothing while buying lunch with smart phones created a strangely incongruous scene. In comparison, few vendors at the festival accepted credit cards.

The downside towards adopting a cashless economy is that older generations are slowest to change, creating inconvenience for many, especially now that the country has begun dismantling ATMs due to declining use.

Cut finger.

Like most countries with socialized medicine, Swedes like their healthcare system.

  1. The Great Healthcare Debate

The most common comparison between Sweden and America regards our vastly different healthcare systems, for which Americans have strong opinions, typically with little actual experience or knowledge to back it up. In Sweden, going to the doctor costs 200 SEK or about $25 per visit for a maximum limit of 1,100 SEK ($137) per year. All subsequent appointments are free. As if that isn’t free enough, healthcare is entirely free for minors in Sweden. Like most countries with socialized medicine, Swedes like their healthcare system.

Knee X-Ray

Medicine in America is a more terrifying prospect. Americans typically avoid doctors and hospitals when possible, and many people suffer debilitating ailments for years or decades because they cannot afford treatment.

Medicine in America is a more terrifying prospect. Americans typically avoid doctors and hospitals when possible, and many people suffer debilitating ailments for years or decades because they cannot afford treatment. Visits to the emergency room are avoided except in dire situations. Instead of seeking immediate help, patients must debate the severity of an issue, and when possible, delay treatment long enough to schedule an appointment with a doctor days or weeks later to avoid emergency room or hospital rates.

My girlfriend, for example, had an allergic reaction to a bee sting in my front yard, which is 30 miles from the nearest medical clinic. To a Swede, it is a no-brainer to go directly to the hospital or even call an ambulance to ensure expedient care. Being in America, however, the same issue requires more extensive monitoring and evaluation. How bad is the allergic reaction Can we control it with Benadryl? How fast is it spreading? Can she still breathe? Will she still be breathing if I drive to the emergency room instead of calling an ambulance?

These are serious questions that must be cautiously addressed. Responding too conservatively can be dangerous. Over-reacting can be fiscally crippling. In our case, I brought her to the emergency room myself, sans the ambulance, yet still paid $580 for emergency services for a mere bee sting. American healthcare lacks any safety net to compensate for the loss. Coincidentally, this incident happened just as Mylan jacked the price of the Epipen up to $800 each, which industry analysts estimated cost the company only $30 to produce. Janeth went back to Sweden and purchased an Epipen for approximately US$40.

Knee Surgery

ACL Knee Surgery: With my “bronze” insurance plan, I paid “only” for the insurance, plus the $5,600 deductible, while the insurance company covered the balance of $20,300.

The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare,” was intended to help fix the American system. However, instead of addressing root causes of outrageous healthcare costs, Congress merely passed legislation requiring citizens to purchase costly health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Obamacare led to my first-ever health insurance, which I needed for surgery and physical therapy to replace a torn ACL, the tendon in the middle of the knee. With my “bronze” insurance plan, I paid “only” for the insurance, plus the $5,600 deductible, while the insurance company covered the balance of $20,300. I was fortunate that the operation and physical therapy fit in the same calendar year, so I didn’t have to pay the deductible twice. In Sweden, the clock starts after the first appointment, so the total cost would not exceed $137, even if it the appointments were split over January 1st.

Americans worry that adopting socialized medicine would result in vastly higher taxes like Sweden. Although Swedes pay as little as 29 percent of their wages towards income taxes, other taxes and employer payments push the effective tax rate up to 40 – 60 percent, depending on income levels. In comparison, the American cost for federal, state, and local taxes, plus Social Security and Medicare withholdings, adds up to an estimated 30 percent average tax rate.

Swedish taxes are higher, but not necessarily due to socialized medicine. Ironically, Americans pay more taxes ($5,960/person in 2013) to subsidize healthcare in our privatized system than any other nation, including countries like Sweden that offer universal healthcare.  Free enterprise should theoretically lower prices and improve healthcare, yet we have among the most expensive healthcare and poorest life-expectancy of any developed nation. We could probably learn something from the Swedes, whether or not we precisely copy their healthcare system.

Stockholm Central Station

Within Stockholm, a single magnetic stripe card can be used to jump from bus to subway to commuter train or even boat to travel quickly to any part of the city.

  1. Beam Me Up

Public transportation in Sweden is truly one of the wonders of the modern world. Sweden is slightly larger than Montana with a population equivalent to Georgia, yet with comprehensive and thoroughly integrated public transportation that includes busses, subways, trains, boats, and “bicycle highways.”

Within Stockholm, for example, a single magnetic stripe card can be used to jump from bus to subway to commuter train or even boat to travel quickly to any part of the city. Stockholm is sometimes described as the “Venice of the North,” being spread out over many islands, hence the necessity of including boat travel for shortcuts in the city transportation system.

Stockholm Subway

Although not cheap, at approximately $14 for 72 hours or $106 monthly, the Swedish system is efficient and the subways, trains, and busses are mostly new or in like-new condition.

Stockholm Central accesses layers upon layers of subways, with the newest platforms located three, three-story escalators below the surface. Although not cheap, at approximately $14 for 72 hours or $106 monthly, the system is efficient and the subways, trains, and busses are mostly new or in like-new condition.

Train and bus service is available to towns big and small throughout the country, and local busses are pervasive. In the small town of Höllviken (population 10,000) for example, sparkling new busses continuously crawled the streets for passengers to transport across town or to local hubs to connect with larger cities.

Highways in Sweden seemed thoroughly adequate, yet Swedes also found the resources to develop a parallel system of bicycle trails and “bicycle highways” along most highways and main roads throughout towns big and small. Rather than sandwiching bicycle lanes between traffic lanes and parked cars, as is common in the states, the Swedes largely built a separate system, providing safe and separate tracks and underpasses for cyclists and pedestrians. Consequently, bicycling is so popular in Sweden that bike racks for 500+ bikes are common. The town square in Uppsala, a college town, included a bike rack complex filled with several thousand bicycles.

Bicycle Rack in Uppsala, Sweden.

Bicycling is so popular in Sweden that bike racks for 500+ bikes are common. The town square in Uppsala, a college town, included a bike rack complex filled with several thousand bicycles.

Many sidewalks are texturized into separate lanes for pedestrians versus cyclists, and standing in the wrong lane can be hazardous to unaware foreigners when cyclists expect pedestrians to be in the other lane. Swedes extend their coding system to the blind, providing specially-textured lines down many sidewalks, even through many public buildings, that can be navigated by feel underfoot.

In comparison, the entire state of Montana has fewer bicycle trails than any moderate-sized town in Sweden. Only the largest cities in Montana offer city busses, mostly underutilized and too few and far between to be of much use anyway. Bus service to small towns is largely nonexistent. The nearest train station is a six-hour drive away, and since it is more expensive than flying, I’ve never yet been on a train in America. Being a rural state, we have no subways or commuter trains whatsoever. If you don’t have a car in Montana, “public transportation” largely requires hitchhiking.

BART Subway System

Coming home from Sweden through Oakland, California seemed like going to a third-world country. The BART commuter system was old, ugly, slow, and too loud to carry on a conversation.

Coming home from Sweden through Oakland, California seemed like going to a third-world country. The BART commuter system was old, ugly, slow, and too loud to carry on a conversation. Some passengers plugged their ears to endure the journey. A one-way trip across the Bay cost almost as much as a 72-hour citywide pass in Stockholm, yet didn’t include bus fare beyond BART. Outside the windows, the Bay Area was heavily covered in graffiti, litter, and old, decrepit cars. I felt like I just landed in Mexico, except that I was in Mexico City earlier this year, and their subway system was vastly superior.

Many American cities have better public transportation systems than the Bay Area, but no city or state compares to Sweden’s comprehensive, futuristic network covering all facets of transportation. How does a tiny country fund a public transportation system that is more elaborate than anything Americans could conceive of funding? Higher taxes are unquestionably a factor. In addition to funding free healthcare for all, the Swedes heavily subsidize public infrastructure, and as we shall see, many other public perks as well.

City Library in Stockholm

The City Library in Stockholm. How can a small country on top of the world afford to provide free education and free healthcare for all, plus family subsidies, a first-rate public transportation system, and scores of other perks? Even with higher taxes, the math doesn’t seem to add up.

  1. Magical Math

In Sweden, the numbers don’t seem to add up, even with higher taxes. It isn’t just free healthcare or the expansive public transportation. Its also free higher education, and at times, seemingly free everything.

In the states, college students often graduate $100,000 or more debt (the national average is $37,000), even while working through school, with no guarantee that they will get a job with their degree. In Sweden, college is free. Students must pay for textbooks (or borrow them from the library), and they need to cover living expenses, but tuition is 100 percent free. Swedes can enroll in school full-time, part-time, finish in a few years, or take classes continuously for life.

Nevertheless, student loan debt is surprisingly high in Sweden due to the high cost of urban living and a Swedish tradition for children to become self-supporting a couple years after high school. Students can obtain school loans for up to 12 semesters worth of study before age 54. The debt incurs low interest, presently about 0.6 percent. Students are expected to begin repaying the loan six months after receiving the last payment, according to each person’s ability to pay. Any remaining student loans are forgiven when a Swede reaches 65 – 68 years old.

The government also heavily subsidizes tuition for Swedes at other universities throughout the word. Until recently, Swedes even offered free education to international students schooling within Sweden.

In addition, the government subsidizes families of all income levels with a modest 1,050 SEK (+/- $130) monthly stipend to help offset childcare expenses. Families with six children are paid the standard 1,050 per child (6,300/month), plus an additional 4,114 SEK family supplement to help defray expenses (Source).

Parents are granted 480 days paid leave from work to split between them when they have a baby or adopt a child. Employees can claim an additional 120 days paid leave per child per year up to twelve years old to care for sick children. In addition, Swedish employees enjoy approximately 25 days of paid vacation, plus 16 paid holidays every year, varying by profession and age.

Brownie with Swedish Flag

America once offered a beacon of hope to the world. Yet, in 2016, Sweden topped the U.S., with 163,000 refugees seeking asylum there, compared to 101,000 refugees and asylum seekers admitted in America.

To top it all off, Sweden accepts more refugees in proportion to its population than any other developed nation. In the 1990s Sweden accepted 100,000 refugees from the Balkan Wars, mostly Bosnians, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Since then, Sweden has accepted refugees from throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, recently including vast numbers of Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians fleeing Middle East conflict. In 2016, Sweden topped the U.S., with 163,000 refugees seeking asylum there, compared to 101,000 refugees and asylum seekers admitted in America.

Fifteen percent of Sweden’s population is now foreign-born. Immigrants often lack the higher education, language, and job skills necessary to find employment in Sweden, leading to years of welfare dependency. Yet, the Swedes have somehow provided transitional funding for food and housing expenses, plus ongoing child subsidies and the similar education and healthcare perks enjoyed by all Swedes.

How can a small country on top of the world afford to provide free education and free healthcare for all, plus family subsidies, a first-rate public transportation system, and scores of other perks? Even with higher taxes, the math doesn’t seem to add up. To a certain extent, it doesn’t, which is why Sweden is necessarily trimming services to citizens and re-evaluating its immigration programs.

Nor does the math add up in the states, where Americans spend as much on national defense as the next eight countries combined, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany. Including direct and indirect costs, sixteen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, have cost the U.S. an estimated $5 trillion, with little tangible improvement on the ground. (Indirect costs include interest on the debt and long-term healthcare costs for veterans.) Sadly, the national debt stands at $20 trillion, meaning that we could have significantly reduced the debt if had not gone to war. Americans may not pay as much in taxes today, but we are billing war expenses to future generations while settling for second-rate services and crumbling infrastructure.

Old Visby City Wall

Throughout history, civilizations have funded civil works projects to consume surplus wealth. Projects such as the City Wall around Old Visby, Gottland, served as an early form of defense spending, arguably to fend off outside attacks, but also useful for taming civilian unrest.

  1. Surplus Wealth

All industrial nations struggle with the misunderstood problem of surplus wealth. Due to industrialization, only a fraction of the population does real work to provide houses, roads, cars, schools, hospitals, food and medicine to the masses. All other people must be employed in pseudo jobs that serve the dual function of spreading wealth throughout the populace while keeping everyone too busy chasing their own tail to complain about or revolt over the status quo. Call it an unconscious conspiracy. We worry about the unemployment rate and strive to create new work whether it produces anything useful or not.

The American economy nurtures many inefficiencies that consume resources without producing anything, but effectively redistributes wealth and keeps unemployment rates down. For example, American households and businesses collectively spend 8.9 billion hours per year on accounting and paperwork associated with filing federal income taxes. That’s the equivalent of 4.3 million people employed full-time to do nothing but tax paperwork. In dollar terms, that works out to about $409 billion/year for no tangible return.  In comparison, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) survives on only $19 billion/year.

NASA Logo

NASA’s budget of $19 billion/year is miniscule compared to the $409 billion/year in time Americans spend complying with federal tax paperwork.

Instead of paying engineers and astronauts, we dedicate resources towards paying accountants and tax consultants. Millions more people are employed to provide their computers, tax software, office buildings, janitorial services, and espresso. Even logging and pulping interests benefit as trees are cut and converted to paper to print copious copies of paperwork. Switching to an automatic, fixed tax, such as a carbon tax, would virtually eliminate the labor cost associated with paying taxes and eliminate millions of jobs, or arguably free those resources to work on something else, such as public transportation or the space program.

Comparatively, Sweden’s tax system is largely automated, Skatteverket, the Swedish Tax Agency, sends annual tax forms to citizens already completed, requiring only a cursory check for accuracy. The more efficient system allows resources to be directed towards public works projects.

Nevertheless, the Swedish economy nurtures other inefficiencies that consume resources without producing anything. As any Swede will testify, authorities regulate nearly everything. As one Swedish friend discovered when applying for a building permit, the government mandates that a new house must have baby-proof drawers for knives, trash, and medicine before you can move into your home—even if you have no children.

Flock of Sheep

Just owning a flock of a dozen sheep requires government oversight, and authorities can show up any time for an inspection to insure that the animals are being properly cared for.

Just owning a flock of a dozen sheep requires government oversight, and authorities can show up any time for an inspection to insure that the animals are being properly cared for.

The difference between the Swedish and the American systems for consuming surplus wealth is that the Swedes consume resources and provide free education, healthcare, and subsidized public transportation, while Americans consume resources and produce copious paperwork and lots of bombs. Overall, the Swedes arguably get a better return for their investment.

Socialism vs. Capitalism

Tom and Janeth Canoeing

Americans are deathly afraid of socialism, yet we are in many aspects a socialist country.

The difference between America and Sweden is often viewed as the difference between capitalism and socialism. Strikingly, while Americans are deathly afraid of socialism, we are in many aspects a socialist country. Visiting most national parks, we can be grateful to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression for building the infrastructure we enjoy today. In America, we enjoy toll-free roads, toll-free bathrooms, and millions of acres of toll-free public land for recreation.

Comparatively, at the central station in Malmö, Sweden, as is true across most of Europe, there are no free public bathrooms. Leaving the espresso shop in search of a toilet, there isn’t one in the food court as it would logically be placed in the U.S. Five minutes of wandering around the station tracking signs finally revealed the centralized bathroom, with the desk clerk waiting with an outstretched palm to take 10 krona ($1.25) to enter the restroom. That is the capitalist model we idealize in the states, yet it is not the reality we earnestly desire.

In conclusion, there is much that Americans can learn from the Swedes, and much the Swedes could learn from Americans. No country on earth is perfect, yet we can emulate the best that each nation has to offer to improve quality of life, prosperity, and sustainability for all.

Elpel.info logo.Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.

 

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Save Lake Mead, Save America

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Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area.

If we can save Lake Mead, we can save America. The issues that face Lake Mead, formed by Hoover Dam in 1935, are emblematic of the issues that face America. Water from the Colorado River, like the federal budget, is over-allocated. The deficit isn’t so much a lack of water coming in to the lake, but too much going out to water users in California, Arizona, and locally at Las Vegas, Nevada. The result is a permanent white bathtub ring 150 feet above the remaining lake, leaving an oversized dam, and decaying infrastructure throughout Lake Mead National Recreation Area. There is a potential solution to this slow-motion crisis, which can be found three hundred miles to the West.

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Lake Mead is the closest place to Montana with palm trees, where a person can comfortably pitch a tent and camp in the middle of winter.

Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area in 1936, originally named the Boulder Dam Recreation Area. Measured by capacity, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States, but water levels have fallen to 37 percent of capacity. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is administered by the National Park Service, similar to a national park, but with greater emphasis as an outdoor play area than on natural preservation.

Lake Mead has been slowly drying up since 1983. I first discovered the lake in the early 1990s on a winter trip from my home in Montana south to Arizona. Lake Mead is the closest place to home with palm trees, where one can comfortably pitch a tent and enjoy camping in mid-winter. If need be, I can drive the 822 miles from home to the campground at Echo Bay in one long day on the road.  Back then it still looked mostly full, as if the white rim around the lake was due to seasonal fluctuations, rather than a cumulative drop.

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Touring Hoover Dam with my boys back in 2008. The white bathtub ring in the background is much larger now.

For better or worse, Hoover Dam was constructed when America still had the vision and balls to dream big and tackle the impossible, in this case, the most challenging engineering project ever undertaken, temporarily diverting the Colorado and building a 726-foot dam to restrain the mighty river. 660 feet thick at the bottom and 45 feet thick at the top, the Hoover Dam required so much concrete that the core is still cooling down from the chemical reaction of cement and water nearly a century later. The entire job was completed in just five years with the aid of 5,000 workers.

Throughout American history, we were a nation of dreamers, from the founding of democracy to construction of the transcontinental railroads and the founding of Yellowstone as the first national park in our country and in the world. Inspired by the dream of America, oppressed peoples in the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Poland, and around the world rebelled against autocratic governments and founded democracies of their own, spreading freedom without American intervention beyond the inspiration of our existence.

Ditto for America’s parks. Author Wallace Stegner described our national parks as “America’s best idea,” an idea that inspired other nations to form similar parks to preserve their own national treasures for future generations. As part of our national parks system, Lake Mead is effectively one of our ambassadors to the world.

cities_in_the_wilderness

Every city should be surrounded by wilderness!

Lake Mead and Las Vegas is also a model for the interface between urban centers and wildlands. The city is uniquely surrounded by vast public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities, what former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt described as a “city in the wilderness.” Every person in Vegas is about a half hour drive from the middle of nowhere, where hiking, camping, and boating opportunities abound. Wouldn’t it be great if every city shared similar opportunities?

Despite proximity to town, Lake Mead is strangely deserted in winter. High temperatures hover from the mid-50s to the mid-60s in December and January, sometimes dipping down to the 40s, chilly, but not unlike camping in the mountains of Montana in summer. By February, temperatures often reach the mid-70s and the cottonwoods leaf out three full months ahead of spring at home. Still, the campgrounds are largely deserted as Las Vegans consider this winter.

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Lake Mead is a great winter getaway, especially coming south from Montana.

The lake doesn’t get busy until spring break or later, when urbanites from Vegas to Phoenix to Los Angeles begin flocking to the lake to cool off and play in the water. That suits me just fine. I’m content to paddle around the lake in a canoe, enjoying the lack of noisy motorboats and the waves they leave in their wake that could potentially swamp a canoe.

I also enjoy hiking the park’s rugged backcountry before it gets too hot. Lake Mead is rich with wildlife from bighorn sheep and burrows to jackrabbits, roadrunners, and Wile E. Coyote. Unfortunately, the recreation area has taken on an increasingly apocalyptic look as water levels have dropped and facilities have deteriorated or been completely abandoned, mirroring a general decline across America.

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As water levels fell, the National Park Service poured more concrete to extend the Echo Bay boat ramp, eventually becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere.

The Echo Bay Hotel was still a waterfront resort when I first visited Lake Mead. I savored ripe dates below a date palm on the west side of the building, wishing I could scale the tree to pick more. The boat ramp in front of the hotel provided easy access to the lake. Each time I returned, the lake was a little farther from the hotel, and the Park Service had poured more concrete, extending the initial board ramp downhill to catch up with the receding lake, ultimately becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere, terminating far from the present lakeshore.

The marina was also pushed farther out into the lake, requiring constant re-engineering of the facilities and ever-longer water pipes, electrical lines, and anchor cables. A quarter mile beyond the boat ramp, the marina was abandoned, and the Park Service plowed a mile-long dirt road from the hotel to access the remaining lake.

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The Echo Bay hotel and marina were abandoned, contributing to a post-apocalyptic aura.

Not surprisingly, the hotel soon went out of business. Vandals broke the windows and destroyed the interior. Ditto for the abandoned marina. Yet neither place has found room in the budget for demolition and removal, presumably because the Park Service has prioritized chasing the lake to keep facilities functional, rather than cleaning up old messes. The race to migrate the marinas with the receding lake has left behind a litter trail of old docks, parts, cables, concrete blocks and tire anchors. Abandoned boats are surprisingly common in the old dead stands of tamarisk far above the present lake.

Some of my anti-establishment friends see the decline of Lake Mead as prophetic to the inevitable abandonment of Las Vegas and Phoenix, desert cities that shouldn’t exist, sustained by water restrained by a dam that shouldn’t have been built. We should blow up the damn dam and every other dam to allow rivers to flow wild and free and restore the healthy ecology and natural fisheries, they exclaim. This article isn’t about whether or not Hoover Dam should have been built, but as long as it exists, I believe we might as well use it. Besides, if the lake ceased to exist and Las Vegas dried up, all those people might move to Montana.

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There are many abandoned boats in the dead and dying tamarisk around Lake Mead.

There are also people who cheer the decline of America. Civilization as we know it is not sustainable. We’ve paved over paradise, fracked the planet for consumable resources, and terrorized the world with warfare. They see the collapse of our nation as a necessary step in the path to sustainability, to restoring balance with nature. I see it a bit differently, since there are enough guns and ammo to turn our country into Syria and to wipe out all remaining wildlife for food. All our toxic chemicals would spill unchecked into surface and groundwaters—and best of all—our untended nuclear reactors would melt down and irradiate all life on the planet. Collapse is no longer a viable option. Saving America, and saving Lake Mead, seems like a much better plan.

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Vandals broke windows and destroyed the inside of the inside of the Echo Bay hotel before it was boarded up to prevent further access.

The doomsayers do have a point though. America has overreached and become a world terror. Gone are the days when we were the most respected and admired nation on earth. Somewhere we transitioned from inspiring other nations to bombing them in the name of peace and democracy. In the latest round of democracy-or-else, we invested $5 trillion dollars a) to remove Saddam Hussein (whom we previously supported and armed against Iran), b) to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (after originally arming and training Afghans to fight the Soviets), and c) to destroy ISIS (which was born in our own Army prisons and armed with American weapons left behind from tasks a and b). In terms of bang for the buck, we don’t have much to show for the investment. Invested differently, $5 trillion could have saved Lake Mead as well as most of America.

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Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas is dependent on water from Lake Mead.

American infrastructure is declining, and Lake Mead is drying up. Due to falling water levels, Las Vegas invested $817 million to construct a new intake pipe to reach deeper into the lake, yet it too is in danger of becoming a straw to nowhere as lake levels continue to drop. The problem is that downstream water users claim too much of the Colorado’s flow, such that experts forecast that Lake Mead will never rise to capacity again. At this point, I haven’t heard of a plan, a vision, or apparently even a discussion on how to remedy the problem. As a country, we lack the dream or the initiative to tackle our most basic problems.

Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas and Phoenix depend on the Colorado for their very survival. Farmers in California’s Central Valley also depend on the river to grow much of the nation’s produce. Los Angeles and San Diego, however, are situated adjacent to the world’s biggest bowl of water, the Pacific Ocean, three hundred miles west of Lake Mead. If these urban centers obtained their water from the ocean and left Colorado water in Lake Mead, the lake would refill at the rate of about 4 percent per year, enough to eventually fill the lake to capacity and potentially restore partial flows across the Mexico border to the Gulf of California.

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Investing in desalinization to provide water to Los Angeles and San Diego from the Pacific Ocean could save enough Colorado River water to refill Lake Mead.

At present, desalinization is considered energy-intensive and cost prohibitive, about $2.20 to $5.00 per thousand cubic feet of treated water, compared to $2.00 to purify river water. Yet, the cost of desalinization is falling as other countries, notably Israel, invest heavily in the technology. The cost of wind, solar, and wave power are also falling, making desalinization a realistic possibility, if not now, then in the near future. The federal government and all water users would have to work together to determine who would pay for construction and operation of the desalinization plants.

Notably, Carlsbad, California has recently completed a desalinization plant to augment their water supply, and other plants are being discussed in the state, but apparently not towards the goal of restoring Lake Mead or guaranteeing future water supplies to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Due to the 1922 Colorado River Compact governing water use, any water saved on the California coast would likely be utilized by other entities to fulfill their own claims. This is not an insurmountable problem. The effort required to renegotiate the water compact and build desalinization plants is far less than the bold action initially required to build the dam and create the lake.

Lake Mead needs what America needs, a bold vision for a better future and the gumption to commit to making it happen. If we can save Lake Mead, we can just as easily save America and once again become an inspiration and positive role model to the world.

Elpel.info logo. Thomas J. Elpel is the director of Green University, LLC in Pony, Montana and the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. In 2006, Thomas Elpel and friends paddled the Virgin River from Mesquite, Nevada downstream to Lake Mead… dragging canoes ten miles through the sand. Read the full story.

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Freedom to Roam

Montana_Outdoors_May_June_2016

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.

An abrigded version of this 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

 

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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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Building a National Park

The Jefferson River is an essential segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

The Jefferson River is an essential segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

“Let’s make a national park, Dad.” my son Edwin used to tell me. He participated in junior ranger programs at many national parks. Creating our own park was apparently the next step in the process. Now, as president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, that is essentially the focus of my work.

In two dimensions at least, the Jefferson River is already a national park. Named by Lewis and Clark for our third President, the Jefferson River is an essential segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail (L&CNHT), administered by the National Park Service. However, as a trail, it is a park with length, but not width. The Jefferson River is part of the national historic trail, yet there is no formal protection for the river. Much of the Jefferson is threatened by development, and camping opportunities are limited.

From the perspective of a floater on the river, the Jefferson retains much of its original character from the days of Lewis and Clark.

From the perspective of a floater on the river, the Jefferson retains much of its original character from the days of Lewis and Clark.

Most of the Jefferson flows through private lands. The area is sliced and diced by fences, roads, and development. Yet, from the perspective of a floater on the river, the Jefferson retains much of its original character from the days of Lewis and Clark. The rich riparian corridor supports everything from deer and moose to beavers, otters, blue herons, bald eagles, and sometimes bears. Viewed from a boat, paddlers see the trees and wildlife in the foreground and the mountains in the background, oblivious to most development along the way.

Our organization, a chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, is working to educate landowners about conservation easements and sensible development choices to preserve the historic character of the river for the enjoyment of all. We are also seeking land for public floater’s camps along the river, and we recently purchased land for a 4.37-acre campsite on the lower Jefferson, near the town of Three Forks, Montana. The goal is not actually to create a national park, but to appreciate and steward our backyard as if it were a national park.

We recently purchased a 4.37-acre campsite on the lower Jefferson.

We recently purchased a 4.37-acre campsite on the lower Jefferson.

We’ve only seen the beginning of the population surge in this area. Now is our last best chance to conserve the Jefferson River for future generations. Do nothing, and the river will be degraded by inappropriate housing developments, riprap along the banks, and “no trespassing” signs from one end to the other. To make a difference, please contribute to our campsite development or go to www.JeffersonRiver.org and sign up for our email discussion group.

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Thomas J. Elpel
April 13, 2014
Updated September 28, 2014

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