[You might enjoy listening to this Woody Guthrie track whilst reading this blog]
This week I have been in the forests of Sweden. I’ve been listening for wolves, and following the tracks of moose. I canoed down the Black River valley at sunrise looking for beaver, and saw long-horned roe deer prancing at dusk. This was a work trip to Scandinavia to investigate “rewilding” – the idea that bringing back these animals to our wild places will have trickle-down effects on encouraging biodiversity and help damaged ecosystems recover. That was the story I went to write and photograph at least – but along the way I discovered something else.
The surprise happened in the twilight of Sunday evening. For the last few hours we had been pressing steadily deeper into the forests of the Bruksleden Trail. Recent rain had turned the trail from muddy to boggy to flooded, and soon we were sloshing thigh-deep through darkening Scots pine forest. Wet and increasingly cold on an autumn night in Scandinavia is inviting trouble, and so we struck out for higher ground to make an emergency camp. With socks drying on sticks and soggy shoes soon propped around a fire, we settled in for the night in a clearing beside a remote dirt road. It felt good to push out the night with a campfire and a meal cooked over its heat.
But as deep as we were in these woods, the sound of a approaching vehicle soon disturbed our silence. This was no national park, or public land, or official camping spot. We were on someone’s land and were overnighting without permission. Worse still, we didn’t speak the language and were unable to explain our predicament. Our fire felt uncomfortably hot as the pickup truck rolled closer….
In several places in the world, a bikepacking trip can still take you deep into the world’s remaining wildernesses – spaces yet untainted by man. I felt the freedom last week in Sweden of travelling for a day or two without my trail being cut by highways, partitioned for ranching or extracted to become a more essential and modern thing in some distant land. To set out under your own power, to tackle the lie of the land as it comes and sleep under unpolluted stars is to know a little of the old world. A way of living that once saw wilderness as worthy of wonder, piety and respect.
In the United States there are big open spaces where you can still escape the press of modern society to breathe a little deeper and dream a little wider. An impressive 610 million acres and 27% of land in the US is public land. These spaces are used for recreation and play, but are also home to Native American communities, untrameled ecosystems, glaciers, rivers and mountain peaks. Whilst you have the right to bike across much of these open spaces, this privilege is a rare one in the rest of the world where private ownership prohibits access to these wild places, and where extractive industries have polluted them. These public lands in the US are currently owned and managed on a Federal level by the US Government.
There is a movement in the US right now, however, to transfer these public lands to State control. Some feel that Federal ownership smacks of overbearing Big Government and needs to be challenged at any cost. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has just recommended unspecified boundary adjustments for some of the 27 locations under his recent review. Yet this is not a party-political issue. The major voices of opposition against Zinke and the current Government’s move, believe this is a decision favouring neither Republican nor Decmocrat voters – but the oil and gas industries. (The oil and gas industries have even corroborated their interest in further exploration and extraction in these protected areas – see Industry Appetite“).
So what did my experiences in Sweden teach me? I was certainly fearful as that car rolled towards our private land camping spot. On a previous trip in the United States, I had once been forced to camp out on private land near people. It proved to be one of the most terrifying nights of my life. But in Sweden civilians don’t carry guns. And the line between public and private land I learned was far less finite. In this peaceful Scandinavian country you have the right to camp on any land – be it public or private – as long as you leave no trace of your passing. The car driver waved, and rolled on by into the night.
But I’m not sure the US is ready for this kind of private land access for everyone yet.
So the US outdoor community is fighting back against the US Government’s current disenfranchisement of public land ownership. Bear Ears National monument is at the forefront of the debate and you can read here about the bikepacking adventures that would be compromised if protection was rolled back.
Now is the time to pack your bags and to roll out there. Laying down your tracks proves the value of public land for the memories it creates, rather than the minerals that could be extracted. This land is my land. This land is your land.
Call for comment
- Is public land something your regularly enjoy on your rides?
- Do you have any experiences of private land ownership and access difficulties?