Think of some of your favorite memories. Where did these touchstone moments take place? If you're like a lot of people, many of them are set outdoors. Nature is often the backdrop for deep experiences and good times. And chances are that public lands and waters are woven into the fabric of your own life story. Minnesota family lore is rife with tales of lakes paddled, trail miles logged, fish and game pursued, hills topped, and sunsets viewed on lands that are open to the people.
My own path to public lands is easily traced. I grew up in the southeastern part of the state, in Rochester, which was surrounded mostly by farms and without any large tracts of public land close at hand. As a kid I scratched my itch to explore on the margins of town and in city and county parks. In my teens I found more room to roam in forays to Whitewater and Forestville state parks, the Dorer State Forest, and the Mississippi River valley, where lands were set aside early on by visionary Winona preservationist John Latsch. These public lands, where I found peace amid hardwoods and trout streams and limestone bluffs, were my introduction to wild places.
My horizons broadened in college, when I began to take paddling trips on the St. Croix and the Namekagon, both nationally designated Wild and Scenic rivers, and traveled for the first time to the North Shore of Lake Superior, which felt like going to the seaside. My course naturally led me to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where the raw beauty, the remote feeling, and the immersive nature of the experience sealed my love for the wilderness. Since then, I've roamed far and wide in the state's parks, forests, and other public lands. I even got engaged in one state park (Tettegouche) and married in another (St. Croix).
I wouldn't go so far as to claim that my children wouldn't exist without public lands, but I'll venture that my life wouldn't be the same. It's no wonder, then, that I'm a longtime supporter and defender of these lands, and in this I'm not so different from the Minnesotans profiled in associate editor Michael Kallok's story "Acres for All of Us." For this story Kallok traveled around the state to five types of public lands that are managed by the Department of Natural Resources. By plumbing the durable connections between people and places, Kallok's story brings out an essential truth: We and the earth are intertwined. As we go, so goes the land.
Last spring, bill language was introduced in the Minnesota Legislature that would establish in state law the concept of "no net gain" in public lands. In counties with no-net-gain policies, if the DNR wants to purchase a land parcel using funds from the state's Legacy Fund, for a park, forest, preserve, whatever, it has to dispatch another parcel of equal size. Such a law, if enacted statewide, could hobble important property purchases at crucial junctures and put a hitch in efforts to expand hunting opportunities and preserve or restore native landscapes. The law could affect many Minnesotans who use and enjoy public lands, as well as local industries, from timber to tourism, that economically prosper from use of these lands.
In response, the grass roots of the conservation movement sprang to life and spoke out on this idea. Organizations representing hunters, anglers, and many stripes of outdoors enthusiasts weighed in with their legislators to reinforce the value of public lands. The state chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a national conservation group, wrote to the lawmakers: "America's tradition of allowing public-lands access for hunting, angling, and other recreation is the epitome of our unique and successful North American model of natural resource/wildlife management. And for most of us, public lands are the only lands we will ever own."
Indeed, the U.S. tradition of public lands is an essential part of the country's character and a reaction, in part, to the feudal European past in which "the king's land" was off limits to commoners and was instead for the hunting, fishing, and gathering pleasures of the royal elite. Here in Minnesota, we all can live like kings whenever we enter public lands and legally harvest their natural bounty.
Although the no-net-gain language did not pass, DNR Assistant Commissioner Bob Meier tells me this issue isn't going away and could be back in the next legislative session. Conservation-minded Minnesotans should watch closely, because as they are keenly aware, public land belongs ultimately not to the government but to the people.
Keith Goetzman, acting editor