Thursday, March 31, 2011

Footpaths are Conservation’s Missing Link

By Drew Hanson

[This essay comes from a presentation by the author at the 1999 conference Building on Leopold's Legacy: Conservation for a New Century, at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, WI.]

In his essay The Land Ethic, Aldo Leopold describes a necessary third step in the sequence of human ethical evolution. This step involves the development of “a land ethic [which] changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” However, in the fifty years since the publication of this essay in A Sand County Almanac, most people still view themselves as separate from nature, rather than as “members of a community of interdependent parts.” Herein lies a failing of the Conservation Movement.

Aldo Leopold
Man versus nature is a false dichotomy that ignores the many ways we are dependent on the natural world. Meanwhile humanity edges closer to exhausting the world’s air, land and water resources. One of the key arenas for raising the general understanding of humanity’s dependence on nature is outdoor recreation.

In Conservation Esthetic, Leopold writes: “The automobile has spread [the] once mild and local predicament [of outdoor recreation] to the outermost limits of good roads–it has made scarce in the hinterlands something once abundant on the back forty.  … Advertisements … confide to all … the whereabouts of new retreats, landscapes, hunting-grounds, and fishing-lakes just beyond those recently overrun. Bureaus build roads into new hinterlands, then buy more hinterlands to absorb the exodus accelerated by the roads.  … This is Outdoor Recreation, Latest Model.”

This passage could just as well have been written today. As a society we continue to create most of our new outdoor retreats far removed from the homes of the masses of people. Just as it was fifty or seventy years ago, one only need look at a map of public lands in Wisconsin to see that the vast majority of public open space is in the north. But with three-quarters of Wisconsin’s population living in the southern half of the State, how effective are these distant lands at connecting people with nature? The same holds for the United States with most of its public open spaces in the West or East while the great center of the country is home to relative fragments of public land.

Indeed, in Smokey Gold, Leopold wrote, “Here [in Adams county], come October, I sit in the solitude of my tamaracks and hear the hunters’ cars roaring up the highway, hell-bent for the crowded counties to the north.” The roar of cars continues today–exceeding anything Leopold prophesized. This is true of the Northwoods, as well as at our great national parks like Smokey Mountains, Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Traffic jams and ozone alerts now occur several times a year at Yosemite Valley, California as well as Door County, Wisconsin.

So how can we reshape our outdoor recreation model? We need a model that adds to America’s national parks, national forests and wilderness areas by borrowing a page from the human-scale connections prevalent in areas of Europe. We need a system of footpaths to connect people to native natural landscapes, to the agricultural lands that sustain them, and to other people.

Benton MacKaye
This idea has been around in the United States for quite some time. In 1921, Benton MacKaye proposed, “a series of recreational communities throughout the Appalachian chain of mountains from New England to Georgia, to be connected by a walking trail.  … Food and farm camps could be … combined with the community camps with the inclusion of surrounding farm lands (An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning).”

The late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, speaking on his championing of the National Trails System Act in 1968, stated, “Hiking trails provide the entire American family with perhaps the most economical, most varied form of outdoor recreation. This law gives us a much-needed opportunity to preserve and more widely enjoy many significant parts of our country’s natural heritage. The goal is to provide all of us, no matter where we live, with easy access to a wide variety of trails suited to our tastes and needs.”

As a young man, Leopold drew inspiration from his regular tramps into the hinterlands of Burlington, Iowa and Lawrenceville, New Jersey. These long walks, prior to the days when No Trespassing signs became prevalent, allowed him to study and connect with nature at a pedestrian pace. The youth of today, as well as their families, have far fewer such opportunities. The nearest hinterlands or nature preserves, for many, are not easily accessible.

From the mid-1930s through 1960, Milwaukee attorney Ray Zillmer explored the Kettle Moraine belt of southeast Wisconsin and argued tirelessly for the establishment of an Ice Age National Park to protect them and long-distance hiking trail to enjoy them. He regularly asserted that the population centers of Wisconsin and surrounding states were in need of appropriate recreation opportunities close to home. In the decades to come (i.e. today) he knew that without corridors of public land bisected by footpaths, the problem would become ever more acute.

Where public open space was not conveniently located near most people, Zillmer saw the problem in how people used their extra time. “Free time, which people have and which is increasing, should be used in a constructive way, so that they will do the thinking and not sponge-like receive the thinking of others, and so that they will use their body instead of watching other people use theirs (letter to Walter E. Scott, Wisconsin Conservation Department, March 2, 1956).” With foot trails bisecting corridors of public land close to home, people could hike, volunteer to build and maintain trails, or perform landscape restoration and maintenance. Zillmer was especially fond of the idea of bringing teenagers to the trail for work days. Here, “youth groups [could] help clear and build a trail, not only because of the amount of work accomplished…but as much for helping build character (letter to Guido Rahr, Wisconsin Conservation Commission, January 23, 1958).” It was akin to what Leopold called a “sense of husbandry (Conservation Esthetic).”

The conservation, recreation, education, economic and physical fitness goals for the footpaths of the National Trails System have yet to be realized. Among its components, due to its completeness as an off-road trail within a protected corridor, the Appalachian Trail is the closest to the grandeur imagined for these trails that only Congress can designate. The other National Scenic Trails in the System, including the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Ice Age trails–until our Nation makes a serious attempt to fully protect, complete and embrace them–offer only glimmers of their diverse potential.

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