Protect Your Public Lands: A User’s Guide

We can’t hike trails without public lands, so I wrote this blog for Oboz about 5 things you can do!


by Renee Patrick

What Designations Does You Favorite Trail Have Photo By Renee Patrick

Image: Take some time to learn about public lands surrounding your favorite trails. Photo by Renee Patrick

After huffing up the 2,000-foot climb out of Big Indian Gorge, my sweat-dampened shirt quickly chilled in the sharp November wind. I was just days from finishing my Oregon Desert Trail section hike with the final 65 mile stretch up and over the monolithic Steens Mountain in eastern Oregon.

I surveyed the miles of alkaline playa 5,000 feet below Steens summit and the vast expanse of public land stretching far into the horizon. That early November morning was just days away from an election that would upset the nation, and jeopardize the future of the very land below my feet.

In the weeks that followed, one thing became clear: I need to act to protect what I love, and the question became: How can I advocate for public lands and have a real impact?

I am fortunate enough to work for a conservation organization, the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), which has been working for 30 years to protect, defend, and restore high desert landscapes in eastern Oregon. But after multiple conversations with friends who don’t directly work in the conservation field, I realized they too wanted guidance on how to be effective in advocating for the future of our public lands. So I surveyed a few of my colleagues and came up with these action points:

5 Tips on How YOU Can Advocate for Public Lands Protection

1. Focus on public lands close to home

One of the best ways to participate in the public lands debate is to become educated about some of your favorite places. Is your go-to hike on public land? If so, which agency manages it, and does it currently have any protections or designations? We often form personal connections with our favorite places, and those connections can be powerful when a place you love is at risk. Visit your Forest Service, BLM, or State Parks office. Learn more about how they steward your favorite places, ask how you can participate in trail maintenance, or in any upcoming planning processes.

Even the youngest volunteers can make a difference in a conservation organization. Photo by Allison Crotty

2. Join a local conservation organization

Most communities have a variety of nonprofit conservation organizations that work to protect important landscapes and watersheds. Each of these groups may have a specific focus, whether it is sustainability, climate change, river health, or supporting the stewardship of a specific wilderness area. These organizations give a powerful voice to important local and national public land issues, and rely on their members to help support advocacy for restoration activities in the places we all cherish. Consider becoming a member of one conservation organization in your area. Start volunteering, or join them on a hike or stewardship trip. Your donation, membership, volunteer time, or voice can make a difference.

3. Get to know your senators and representatives

Your senators and representatives represent you on the state and national level, so it’s important to let them know where you stand on public lands issues. There is a lot of debate these days about the most effective ways to reach out to your elected officials, but any action is better than no action. Call their offices, write postcards, attend town hall meetings…and make it personal. You don’t have to be an expert on public lands to have a powerful pull. It can be very meaningful for our officials to hear from everyday people who care about public lands, so share your stories, share your concerns, and if they have been supportive of keeping public lands public, thank them!

Get creative with your signs at the next town hall event in your area. Photo by Heidi Hagemeier

4. Hold small gatherings with friends/family

Since so many people take access to public lands for granted, we need as many folks as possible to simply be out talking with their friends/neighbors/family about why public lands are important. Invite some friends over, and over dinner or beers talk about a few of the current threats. One of the main issues you may want to discuss involves proposals to hand over American public lands to the states. Because most state governments can’t afford to manage millions of acres of land, a likely scenario would result in raising taxes or selling our land to the highest bidder in order to pay for costs like firefighting and management. Come up with a list of your legislators’ addresses, and then have everyone write a few postcards and make a night of it! (find more here: https://www.congress.gov/state…, https://www.congress.gov/ -search legislation).

5. Vote

Start local. City, county, state and even school boards have elections between the presidential election years, and we can build a strong voice from the bottom up. Do some research and find out where your local candidates stand on public lands issues. Then make your voice heard on Election Day.

Renee “She-ra” Patrick is the trail coordinator for the Oregon Desert Trail in Bend, OR, and a triple crown hiker, having completed the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail in addition to 6 other long distance trails. When not backpacking, she can be found packrafting, skiing or napping in the backcountry. You can read about her adventures on her blog,www.sherahikes.wordpress.com.

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Oboz Trail Tales / Now, More Than Ever, Public Land Matters

As part of my ambassador roll with Oboz Footwear, I’ve been writing a series of blog posts for them the past two years. While I sat down in the days after the election to write my final blog of the year about nutrition on the trail, I just couldn’t bring myself to start the post when my head was a swirling mess of surprise, anger, confusion, and disappointment at the results of the presidential election. A lot of what I hold dear is in jeopardy under this new “leadership,” so I wrote this essay instead:

Now, More Than Ever, Public Land Matters

Cover image: Wildhorse Lake embodies the incredible beauty of wild places in Eastern Oregon. All images by Renee Patrick

Since I began backpacking 14 years ago, I have hiked through more national forests, wilderness areas, national parks, and tracts of BLM than I can count…literally over 10,000 miles worth of public lands. But their worth has only recently been on my mind. I guess you could say I have taken for granted that the United States is incredibly rich in wild places.

Public Melting Pots

I’ve seen clues…the long distance trails are a melting pot of cultures from foreign countries. Many of those hikers come to the U.S. because of the lack of public lands in their home countries. Their wild lands are gone, developed, extracted, or patchworked so that one could not walk 2,000 continuous miles for months on end in a space that has been created for the trees, elk, butterflies, rivers and recreation.

Oregon Desert Trail

Since starting to work on establishing the Oregon Desert Trail with the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) last year, I’ve begun to pay closer attention to public lands. ONDA has been working for 30 years to protect, defend, and restore the land in Eastern Oregon, and the Oregon Desert Trail passes through some of the most spectacular areas east of the Cascade Mountains. Not all of these lands are equal; not all are managed for wildlife or river health, or recreation. I’ve learned there are many layers to the puzzle of public land throughout Oregon and the country.

Why does this matter?

No Guarantees

Because there’s no guarantee the land we currently love to explore will be open to us next year, or in perpetuity. Our modern culture of wants and desires do have an impact on the world around us; consumption on a global scale does impact where we get our lumber, minerals for technological devices, and oil to fuel the cars we love to road trip in.

And those resources come from the land. So the question becomes, where is it appropriate to extract versus protect? If we extract too much or cause environmental damages (intentional or not), we can destroy the very land that sustains us and our wildlife and way of living.

Economic Impacts

If we protect everything from development and extraction, the cost of those goods and services can go up; it impacts those who make a living from timber harvest, mining, or drilling. It’s not an easy answer; it’s not an easy question. But since working to build a 750-mile route through Eastern Oregon, I’m ready to tackle the hard questions.

Our land management agencies are trying to strike a balance between extractive practices and protective measures…that balance strives for sustainability, but is often difficult to manage for all purposes out there…even recreation.

After 5 sections and over 6 weeks, Renee finished the entire Oregon Desert Trail.

Multi-Purpose Management

Working to build this route provides an opportunity to learn about the different layers of public land management: what influences it, what threatens it, what happens if pieces don’t get protected… if they do…it’s given me the chance to know a place on a much deeper level than I ever considered before when my main concern was getting to Canada before the snow falls.

Public land is essential for outdoor recreation, and while my recreation has been a relatively personal experience in the past, now I have the opportunity to help facilitate recreation experiences for a much bigger audience: hikers, ultrarunners, boaters, bikers, horseback riders, snow shoers, skiers…the list goes on.

Be The Change You Wish To See

I love the saying “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” and for my part I wish to better educate myself on public lands, and want to help others to do the same. Through understanding, I believe we can better care for and steward our special places.

The Steens Mountain Wilderness became the first cow-free wilderness in the United States in 2000

I plan to explore these layers of land management by using the Oregon Desert Trail as a guide. As one hikes, bikes or paddles across Eastern Oregon, the maps, guidebook, and companion materials can be a tool to understand the different landscapes, their importance in the ecological diversity of the area, and the ways in which they are managed.

Speak Up

We all have a say in the future of public land, I believe the first step is through exploration and adventure in these wonderful and wild places…the next is through education.