THE KING’S FOREST: The Public is increasingly being excluded from public lands

Jim Matthews

May 15, 2017 — In the run up to Earth Day late last month (a big event in California), I watched a video on how much trash is left behind by ignorant people playing in the snow on Southern California’s national forests. I read a story on Outside OnLine about how Instagram photos and geotagging are flooding once-pristine places with hoards of people. And I was again stonewalled by the U.S. Forest Service about why a three-year-old fire closure still has not been re-opened to the public.

Increasingly, we are seeing efforts on a wide variety of fronts to restrict different categories of human use on public lands. Anglers, backpackers and hikers, OHVers, bird watchers, hunters and everyone else who uses public lands have their pet peeves. They all hate those who leave graffiti and trash. Someone will hate you and want you banned if you pick a bouquet of wildflowers. Off-road motorcyclists are despised by hunters who are hated by birdwatchers. Hikers dislike mountain bikers and they both hate motorhome owners. And all the factions complain to the land management and wildlife agencies to do something about their concerns. The bottom line is simple: They want “those other people” controlled.

A growing faction within the environmental community and public land agencies greets this turn of events with glee. They think the public — all the public except for an enlightened few — should be banned from so-called public lands so nature can function without interference by humans. The old adage they used to espouse — “take only pictures, leave only footprints” — isn’t enough any longer. They want you and I banned. The enviros are thrilled when piece-meal exclusions are enacted, even pushing for them. The land use agencies — many with the same political agenda — work to keep out the public.

These people rejoice when an area is closed to use after a burn, when maintenance budgets are diverted forcing road closures, when quotas are enacted on use of wilderness or special areas. They love additional fees because it runs out the riff-raff.

The traditional sporting community is the first being forced out. Hunters and fishermen are arguably the last members of the human species who maintain an intimate relationship with the land. We truly understand the dynamic between life and death, nature and society, and human well-being and a healthy environment. We were the first conservationists because we understood how critical it was for fish and wildlife and their habitats to be preserved, and we are the only conservationists who have rallied to put our money into the protection effort.

Today’s environmental community refuses to see humans as legitimate predators on the landscape. That idea alone skews their entire world view about how we need to care for our natural world on a landscape basis. In short, they don’t know how to think like a wolf — or a human hunter. The new environmentalist’s first goal is to ban human hunting and fishing. Oh, they might babble on about how they accept subsistence hunting or fishing — a form of political correctness toward native people — but the reality is that they simply see human hunting and fishing and use of wildlife as barbaric.

Any consumptive activity is looked on with disdain, even when it is natural and completely sustainable, no different than a wolf killing a moose or a coyote killing a ground squirrel. They conveniently forget that we are a part of the environment, the dominant member of the natural community. (At a university here in Southern California, a study was done to try to “teach” coyotes not to eat sheep, attempting to make them vegetarian. They don’t even want other predators to be predators.)

Increasingly, hunters and fishermen are being excluded from public lands, pinched out of areas by regulations and laws. For anglers, a big example of that is the Marine Protection Act in California that put vast ocean fishing areas off limits along the coastline — without any scientific support or documentation it was necessary. For hunters, the small cuts are coming daily, bleeding us to death: The new Castle Mountains National Monument in California was closed (illegally) to all hunting. The California statewide lead ammunition ban will drive more hunters from the sport because of costs. Forest service managers in California have excluded hunters’ access in the fall under the guise of fire prevention. Larger and larger firearms closures whittle away at the places where we can hunt.

Most of the general public doesn’t care about hunters (in California, we are less than three-quarters of a percent of the state population today) or anglers (who represent less than 3 percent of the population in California). But there are a majority of citizens who flock to our public lands, intuitively understanding its restorative properties, even if they don’t hunt or fish.

These are families who take precious weekend time to go to local streams in our National Forests to play in the water. There are the picnickers who head up into the high elevations to get away from the heat in July. They are the campers who reserve a campsite on public lands, or the hikers who knock off another stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail. These are free or inexpensive forms of recreation/restoration.

But these activities are increasingly being excluded, too. Campgrounds and picnic grounds are being closed because of bogus funding issues, water play areas are restricted ostensibly to protect native fish or stop riparian habitat damage, and hiking trails are closed after fires for public safety and concerns about erosion, neither of which is a legitimate concern.

The land use managers and today’s environmental community don’t want us on “their” lands.

We are rapidly returning to the day when the idea of “public lands” reverts back to “The King’s Forest,”— government-owned land where only a select few are allowed to set foot.

You and I won’t be among those allowed on these former public lands, and it will happen sooner rather than later, especially here in California, but the rest of the country is far from immune. The avalanche of exclusion is happening rapidly.

The solution is for the public to pay attention to closures and exclusions on public lands and to fight all of them. Hunters are a tiny minority today, yet we have been effective in stopping some of the worst public actions against hunting. But I’m not holding my breath for this tide to turn. In California, we have become a citizenry who believes in sin taxes (we overwhelmingly passed a massive cigarette tax increase) and restrictions on personal freedoms we don’t understand or embrace (the gun proposition is a litany of measures to punish legal gun owners, not criminals).

Perhaps we simply don’t deserve “public” lands here, but the rest of the country needs to wake up.

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