Let’s Make a Plan. I Need Some Space.

Smoking Cigar in Utah

The educational philosophy that our family takes to is the Reggio Emilia Approach to learning, which basically shares control with those who are learning. One of the benefits of this community is learning to verbally communicate before resorting to emotional or even physical communication. So certain phrases have a way of finding their way home, such as “Let’s make a plan,” and “What you’re doing makes me feel nervous.”

Another that comes in handy when others encroach too closely or don’t realize how their behavior may affect us: “I need some space.”

Back in the good old days we used to say, “Get the hell out of my face, buddy!” Reggio Emilia seems somewhat an improvement.

I recently returned from a road trip through the American Southwest. My favorite moments were listening to a recording of Abbey’s essay “Drunk in the Afternoon” while driving into Arches National Park where that writer spent 3 years as a ranger. At that time Arches was a National Monument, designated at will by Presidential proclamation; National Park status didn’t come until an act of congress with Presidential confirmation 42 years later.

Another 1.4 million acres nearby has now been proposed as a National Monument by 100 businesses associated under the Outdoor Industries Association. Sarah Gilman covers the details in “Monumental opposition to a monumental proposal?” published by High Country News.

I can appreciate the value of their angle in asking Obama for this designation. As Gilman points out, the Western Governors Association has reported outdoor recreation in Western states supports 2.3 million jobs, and Headwaters Economics found Western federally protected lands “increased jobs by 345 percent over the last 40 years”

Rather than ideological, the relationship between outdoor recreation and environmental protection is one of convenience. The protection proposed is that of a revenue source, not for any aesthetic, biological or spiritual benefits that land represents, although these interests stand to gain from environmental protection as well.

So who’s opposed? The Sagebrush Coalition. Off Road Vehicle (ORV) users. Their mission is to maintain what they view as a Constitutional Right “to use all established motorized roads and trails across public lands and open illegally closed roads and trails to promote motorized access for industry and the general public.”

The first image their mission brings to mind is my driving into a typical Arizona dust storm between Tucson from Phoenix some years ago. It wasn’t until I noticed that the dust–blowing across the interstate, reducing visibility to a few car lengths and slowing all traffic to a crawl–was not part of a storm that I realized it wasn’t typical. When I finally drove out the other side of the cloud, I saw that it was billowing up behind All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs, a. k. a. “Four Wheelers”).

The second image their mission brings to mind is that of any aerial or Google Earth perspective on all the US Forest Service roads already cut and being added to across Western landscapes. It looks more like a child’s scribbling than a natural area.

I first encountered such road closures in Coconino National Forest outside Flagstaff, Arizona earlier this year. A remote campsite we’d used previously was suddenly inaccessible to us because of a Travel Management Record of Decision (ROD) signed September 28, 2011 and effective May 1, 2012 to meet USDA Forest Service requirements in the Travel Management Rule regulations. On the face of it, that sounds fairly legal. Their proposal explained that the ROD was “needed because unmanaged motorized vehicle use on the Forest has been causing increasing amounts of resource damage and Forest-user conflict as unmanaged motorized use increases.”

“Forest-user conflict” must mean something of what my friends who live in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest experience. They purchased a nice farm that butts up against the National Forest beside other private properties. Recently one of those other properties was developed into an area for ATV users. I’ve witnessed the hours of days that they are barraged by the mechanical roar. Not exactly the natural characteristics for which they were drawn to living near the National Forest.

All this said and recognizing that I’m no fan of ATVs, Blake Osborn’s comment on Gilman’s article (read here) is legitimate: “democracy has a place in these types of situations” and “pushing a political… agenda down the throats of locals is not the right way to conserve lands”.

Different recreational users can sometimes default to the approach “Get the hell out of my face, buddy!” But what is needed is the affirmative “I need some space.”

There’s something of value in space. Fewer people per square mile and more undeveloped land. I’m neither anti-social nor misanthropic, but as gregarious as we human animals are, there are times when and places where we need some space from each other. There still remain a few places where you can drive for hours without seeing another soul. Space to be!

But space is fast becoming a luxury these days. I remember, only 30 years ago, lying on my back in a Midwestern field, staring into the blue sky, hearing the wind blow through the grass, with only the sight and sound of the rare airplane interrupting. Today in that same place I am most likely to have my peace and quiet run over by an ATV.

In the United States, democracy does indeed have a place in this situation, but as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his favorable critique of American Democracy, for every majority there is a minority; when someone has rights there is someone who has lost their rights. And a bureau with a mandate to manage public lands for multiple uses has the difficult task of creating or protecting space not just for the public but for a public who wants to use that space in very different ways.

ORV users have this same appreciation, need and perhaps right to experience freedom in this way.

How do we give each other space while also protecting the viability of that space?

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