Category Archives: Public Access

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.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Building a National Park

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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.


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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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