I moved to New Mexico for my health. Well, that was the proximate reason. No, I don’t have tuberculosis (like so many in the 19th century who moved to the American Southwest did). Instead, several years ago I developed a severe mold sensitivity and an autoimmune condition. The combination was debilitating at times, and my doctors warned me that my conditions made me more susceptible to chronic Lyme disease – another debilitating condition. Leaving my beloved community of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, (home of the American Conservation Film Festival) was hard. But the doctors’ warnings were enough for me: I headed West where the climate is drier and deer ticks scarcer.
In reality, my husband John and I had thought about moving to the Rocky Mountain West for years; ever since he completed his graduate degree at the University of Wyoming. I still remember the first time I experienced the weightless euphoria of standing on the edge of a wild plateau in central Wyoming, dumbstruck by the wide-open landscape before me. I was 25 years old, and nothing in my life on the East Coast had prepared me for this. This space. This openness. This land. How could there possibly be so much open land left in a crowded world?
Decades later, John and I returned to that plateau to experience the solar eclipse. Almost 30 years had passed and we hoped that this spot of land, managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, had remained the same: wild and free, with nothing but a few dirt roads and an occasional herd of cattle to disturb the wild reverie. It just so happened that this piece of Earth was within the eclipse’s zone of totality. When we arrived, we were thrilled to find that nothing had changed and we were the only ones there.
I talk about this experience in my interview with environmental journalist Hal Herring for the 18th American Conservation Film Festival, (March 24-28, 2021). Hal is featured in the film Public Trust, an award- winning, inspiring, and infuriating documentary about the majesty of America’s public lands and the relentless threats to their protection by extractive industries and captured politicians. Hal’s knowledge of this ongoing struggle is second to none, and his commitment to engaging the American public is clear. His message: these jewels are your land, America. Wake up, take care of them, and take advantage of them. Not by exploiting and degrading them with excessive resource extraction. Not by giving them away to private interests. But by piling in the family car and road tripping to some of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth.
And that’s precisely what I’ve done with my time in New Mexico. Here, I’m surrounded by national forests, national monuments, national wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and more filled with elk, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, bighorn sheep, countless birds, and even wolves. I’ve hiked, camped, and watched wildlife on many of these lands. I can’t claim I’m miraculously healed. But I can say these lands bring me joy and make me grateful to be an American.
Since Public Trust was produced, there has been a seismic shift in American politics. Our new president, Joe Biden, has started reversing the environmental rollbacks of the previous Administration. He has appointed the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, to oversee management of many of these public lands, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s an appointment that’s long overdue: these lands belonged to Native Americans long before settlers arrived and many places remain sacred to Native tribes. Native leaders featured in Public Trust and the film Gather will be discussing the critical role of First Nation leaders in protecting wild lands at the festival as well. One of my favorite quotes from that discussion came from Sammy Genshaw, a Yurok fisherman and activist, who said, “Modern conservation is just modern colonization if it’s excluding indigenous people; if it’s not acknowledging traditionally based land management practices.”
Although the new Administration offers hope for better protection, the monied forces that threaten our lands remain strong. Hal and I discuss what everyone who cares about public lands can do to protect them. The term “public trust” refers to the government’s responsibility to protect and maintain resources for everyone’s use. But in an era of growing inequity, too often that has allowed a handful of wealthy industries to benefit at the expense of the larger public. Let’s take advantage of a new Administration to change course, and make America’s public lands work for everyone going forward.
The American Conservation Film Festival is free and online this year. Register for films and discussions here.
Updated 3/21/21 to include Sammy Genshaw’s quote.