I grew up on the banks of the upper Rogue River in a little town called Shady Cove. (Unincorporated in those days.) There might have been a total of one-thousand people scattered for ten or fifteen miles up and down the river. Except for a few farm fields dotted here and there, the hills squeezed the river for the most part, creating a landscape of river and hills. From about age nine I was free to fish or swim in the river or to wander the hills as I chose. (My great desire in those days was to find a cave. I found a mine tunnel I was afraid to explore, but I never found a decent cave. I did find a few shy timber rattlers, but that’s for another time.)
I think I knew the twenty-acre field below the house belonged to someone else, and I heard one of the adults mention the BLM land above our place. But I came to feel the long, quiet riffles in below where our land touched the river belonged to me. And in truth I pretty much had it to myself except for those times Dad would share the riffles and teach me how to fly fish.
Over time, my exploration of the miles of hills and canyons, seasonal streams, springs, salt licks, Snake Rock, Bear Mountain and the old cinnabar mine in the canyon below Bear Mountain, the rim rocks, the oak and pine forest (and the poison oak) led me to feel it all belonged to me…included all the critters thereupon.
I remember my shock at finding a couple of people actually hunting “my” territory during deer season. When my youthful outrage led me to tell Dad someone was “hunting up there,” he laughed and said, “I know how you feel, but it’s public land. Those people have a right to be there, too.” Sharing my land wasn’t big on my list of things to do.
We left the river when I had just turned fifteen. I cried…privately…but tried to put a brave face on our family’s next adventure.
After I started a career with the US Forest Service, I thought back on my growing up years. I can smile at my notion of owning all that BLM land behind the old house as my private reserve, but I discovered a kindred spirit in the people who did the field work for the Forest Service. They, too, felt like they owned the land they had been assigned as stewards.
As a consequence, policies about use of public lands were often restrictive. The policies sometimes ran along the lines of, “Unless we give you specific permission to use the Forest, you can’t enter public land.” I remember taking my Forest Management Team team to task over a restricting policy proposal. I asked…if my shaky memory can be trusted after all these year…”Is it the King’s Forest, or the People’s Forest?”
During my nearly four decades of working for the US Forest Service, I met hundreds of conscientious, well-intentioned people, people with big hearts and a passionate love of our National Forests and of our wilderness areas. But as the current managers go about the business of policy making, I would caution them to keep asking themselves, “Is it the King’s Forest, or it is the People’s Forest?”