Bend resident Sarah Graham has long cherished the outdoors. But this past year inspired her to become active to help protect public lands, aiming to ensure they continue to belong to all Americans. Here, she shares her story.
The story of how my husband and I came to be Bendites is a common tale. Fed up with the urban rat race… moved here for the trails and nature… you’ve no doubt heard many versions of the same tune. Nothing sends my spirits soaring more than roaming Central Oregon’s natural landscapes. Having worked for a native landscape and restoration outfit where I studied Central Oregon’s native plant communities, I am fascinated by high desert ecology. My trail runs usually end up something more like interpretive hikes as I call out wildflowers for my running partners and stop often to snap photos or smell ponderosa bark or examine some funky lichen up close.
And yet what was I doing to help protect these places and all of the objects of my adoration? Almost nothing. I’m ashamed to admit it. I’ve never been what you’d call an activist even though the preponderance of societal distress I feel on a daily basis is rooted in concerns over environmental protection and conservation of wilderness and wildlife.
I cringe to admit that for years I have largely evaded environmental news. Environmental news is usually disheartening, with its images of clear-cut forests or islands of ocean plastic or oil-saturated waterfowl. So I avoided it. I wrote annual membership checks, volunteered occasionally, and obsessed (not kidding – ask my husband) over all the little ways in daily life that I could shrink my environmental footprint. I had told myself this was sufficient. I now concede it was, in fact, the bare minimum of what I could be doing. And I had become what I had rebuked in others — complacent.
So what lit the fire that spurred me to action? An onslaught of profound fear really, in the form of the prospect of proposals to overturn environmental protections and transfer public lands to state ownership, among other initiatives. The thought repeatedly cycled through my mind: If someone as passionately concerned about conservation as myself still wasn’t getting involved… then who was?
This jolted me into an adrenaline-fueled activist reaction that was a first for me. I launched into a whirlwind of activity that would soon become my new normal. I knew I would never again take our public lands for granted, put on blinders to conservation-related news, or fail to get involved. First though, I needed to understand the political landscape.
Under the mentorship of a dear friend who is a Ph.D candidate with a focus in wilderness studies at the University of Montana, I began research on environmental politics and wilderness protection. I read classics from John Muir, Edward Abbey, and Aldo Leopold, as well as recent compelling works like James Morton Turner’s “The Promise of Wilderness” and Jason Mark’s “Satellites in the High Country.” I set up Google Alerts for “public land” and “climate change” and I actually read the articles it delivers every day. I stopped using Facebook as a news source. I studied a book on American government to better understand our political processes. I want to be fully aware of current events and legislative proposals that relate to the environment and conservation on both a local and national level so that I can intelligently target my contributions and efforts to fight for protection. It quickly became clear that one issue likely to need support is public land management.
Most of the trails Central Oregonians use for outdoor recreation are on land owned and managed by the federal government. Maston, the Badlands, and Horse Ridge for example are BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and Tumalo Falls, Flagline, and Mount Bachelor are U.S. Forest Service land. The vast public lands we have in the United States belong to all Americans – a birthright for us to share and enjoy collectively. I hadn’t realized how fortunate we are and how rare it is to have such large swaths of wilderness available to us for outdoor recreation until I read George Monbiot’s book “Feral.” In it, Monbiot highlights that most large expanses of undeveloped land in Great Britain are privately owned by a small number of absentee landlords. This means access to the land for recreation can be restricted, the land can be exploited in any manner the landowner fancies, and restoration opportunities only exist at the whim of the owner.
In America, the federal government (with public input) plans how and in which capacities our public lands are preserved, restored, or used for any combination of activities such as non-motorized or motorized recreation, mining, drilling, timber harvesting, and grazing. We the people have a say in what happens to these lands because they belong to us. But that could change with a stroke of a pen. New legislation could propose transferring public land ownership to the states, who could be forced to sell the land to due to lack of budget for management. Once privately owned, anything is possible. The land could be developed, unscrupulously logged, mined, or used for any number of income-generating operations.
Protecting our public lands from this fate will require users to become engaged through volunteer efforts and making their voices heard. Writing to elected officials and attending public comment hearings held by the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM are a few ways to give input. Forest Service proposed actions and an email update signup form can be found here. I will be ramping up my actions in this arena but also want to do more.
I will be attending more trail work parties going forward and will be participating in restoration projects with ONDA. The high desert of Oregon is a special place and I feel privileged to be able to live, work, and play here. ONDA is heavily involved in protecting and restoring our public lands through legislation, fieldwork, education and outreach, land use planning, and enforcement of conservation laws. I have been contributing in a variety of volunteer capacities. I’ve been consistently impressed with the staff at ONDA – their acumen, organization, passion, and dedication have all been striking. I have limited free time to contribute, so I want my efforts to count. I truly feel as if I am having impact when my work is channeled through ONDA.
Whether it’s at ONDA or another organization, I recommend exploring more ways to help support the causes you care about. Becoming more aware and engaged has been filling a void in my life that I hadn’t realized was there – a void that quietly but incessantly needled my subconscious with guilt. It feels stupendous to fight more vocally and proactively for what I believe is right. It’s a rush that I wholeheartedly recommend.