I’m often wrong. Dead wrong, regarding a myriad of subjects and opinions. For a full list of my wrongness, please contact my mother-in-law.
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I truly hope, though, that I’m wrong now. That I’m completely, embarrassingly, comically wrong about the future of wilderness, wildlife, and wild experiences here in the American West. Because right now I’m not optimistic about the future.
This isn’t a cavil on climate change, or drought, or wildfires. And this isn’t some old guy complaining about the loss of the good ol’ days, because I’m too young to have had any. I’m not quite 30 yet, and I think it was Gary LaFontaine who said anyone younger than that is automatically considered a young whippersnapper.
Regardless, I have fished, hunted, camped, hiked, and backpacked for hundreds of days over the past decade. What I’ve seen over the past two years has me longing for the carefree days of my youth, when the world seemed larger and wilder.
I’ve thought on that phenomenon a lot lately; that when we’re young, everything feels so big and limitless. The world seems to shrink as you grow up, but it’s really just your perspective changing. For fly fishers, our world of opportunity truly is getting smaller. Between land access disappearing and habitat disintegrating, the amount of fish-supporting water certainly isn’t growing.
A few years ago, the Pole Creek Fire (which was at one point the largest active fire in the US) decimated 130,000 acres of prime wilderness. Everything from mule deer and cottontails to trout suffered. The stream where I learned to fly fish filled with ash and silt during the autumn rainstorms, rerouting the stream channel and killing all signs of aquatic life.
Despite promises to start, none of the wildlife agencies – state or federal – have done so much as file permits to being the process of habitat restoration. They’re content to let a stream that’s part of the Bonneville cutthroat’s historical native range go to waste.
Meanwhile, about 45 minutes to the north, some Californian developer bought a large chunk of land on a famous tailwater. Because of Utah’s stream access laws, that developer now owns the riverbed and has posted no trespassing signs on land that’s been publicly accessible since the ’70s.
In contrast, I had two private lands hunting tags this year in my new home in Wyoming. The private lands tags were all Wyoming had left, and I desperately needed meat in the freezer. But I’d just moved, and didn’t know anyone. I reckoned I was out of luck.
The first two landowners I called allowed me access to their property, and one even let me use his tractor to hang and field-dress a deer.
But for every feel-good story like those, I see the Forest Service close roads, or hear people living in Jackson complain about having too many elk in their yard. That’s not to mention what the mass exodus from urban areas – particularly California, Washington, and Oregon – has done to real estate in previously sleepy Western towns.
Maybe I’m being dramatic. Maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse. Maybe things will shake out alright, in the end.
History, though, tells a different story. One of overuse, abuse, and disregard for the land. One of rampant, unchecked growth, of building water fountains in the Nevada desert, of lush, green lawns tucked into suburbia in the foothills of the Front Range.
I’m not sure I can be optimistic. I don’t see how this ends, except badly.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that we get things right this time. That we set aside ideological differences and do what’s best for humanity and this world. Humans and nature can coexist, so long as one doesn’t try to bend the other to their will. Most humans, though, haven’t learned that lesson.
Look at the Pebble Mine, for example. Building the world’s largest open-pit mine at the headwaters of the most productive sockeye salmon fishery on the globe is an idea we should’ve left behind a century ago, back when we truly didn’t know any better.
We know what ill effects projects like that have on all living creatures. We know a short-term gain isn’t worth sacrificing a long-term source of sustenance.
It’s time we start acting like the adults we all pretend to be. I don’t want dead fish, starving bears, and a drought-stricken landscape to paint the picture of how this all ends.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, guide, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.