Finding Healing in Protecting National Conservation Lands

Text of speech from Friends Grassroots Network Rendezvous – Conservation Lands Foundation –  Las Vegas, Nevada – October 2016 – photo by Nunatak Design

As a young(ish) gay man in this moment in history, I think a lot about freedom. In just about every way, my husband Pete and I enjoy all the rights, freedoms, and privileges that come with being white men in this society. We can vote. We can own a home. We can walk down the street alone without being afraid for our safety. We can speak, and people will listen. Now, even as out gay men, it’s easy to take for granted the rights we enjoy every day. We are married, for one, no matter which state line we cross. We can adopt. In Colorado, at least, we can live openly as a married couple without fear of being fired.  

But we aren’t fully free, not yet. We may be married, but we still can’t hold hands while walking down the street in our hometown. At least not without wondering who’s watching — and who might hurt us because of it.

The sad part, the angering part, is that this is nothing special. So many of us in this country still aren’t free to walk down the street in safety. Whether it’s because of our skin color, the language we speak, our religion, gender, or sexuality. And even more angering, this is, of course, just the plainest example of the ways in which so many of us are still not free.

And so there are so many of us that need places of refuge. And there are so many of us who have healing we need to do. All of us, in fact, whether we are the victims or perpetrators of injustice, need healing. And as so many people have already said so eloquently at this conference, we each can find refuge and freedom in the wild and open spaces of our public lands.

For me, just about the time I was realizing I was gay, I also realized that I feel most free when I am running on a trail all alone with the wild world. I can strap on shoes and shorts and just go, letting my feet do the thinking and letting my heart open up with the expanding horizon.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Pete and I moved to the small town of Paonia on the western slope of Colorado, I took to the juniper and sage. Pete was spending summers working as a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns and then Yosemite, and so every evening, and most weekends, I’d just go running out the door.

I ranged all over the BLM lands of the Western Slope. First Jumbo Mountain, on the trails that leave right from town, then I explored further, to the BLM lands on the shoulders of the West Elks. I ran in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, and Dominguez-Escalante. I ran and ran and learned the landscape. I was as free as I’ve ever been in my life. And I found my home.

Pete ran too, and we learned to run together, way out in the ‘dobes and canyons and mountains of our BLM lands. One of our favorite runs is in the Gunnison Gorge NCA, which begins by fording the North Fork and then running up the fisherman’s trail into the heart of the gorge. We find peace there. And acceptance. Together. We can hold hands.

We are doing what people have done for so many hundreds and thousands of years: loving these lands as our home. Even more than that, loving them as we would our family and dearest friends. But these lands that are all of our refuge, our places of freedom, are themselves at risk.

For us, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of BLM lands in our valley currently open to oil and gas drilling, with several large lease sales having been proposed over the last few years surrounding our communities, our drinking wells, and our farms. Some of them have been deferred over the last few years thanks to a groundswell of local advocacy. But other lease sales have gone forward, and the land, water, air, and wildlife of our home is being permanently impacted by these very temporary extractive activities and for very temporary economic gains.

It’s relatively easy to articulate the impacts to air and water quality from oil and gas. The traffic impacts. The economic booms and busts. The negative impact to our small but burgeoning tourism economy.

But it’s nearly impossible to articulate the personal and collective loss — if we were to allow our last wild and open places to be roaded and cut and drilled for oil and gas. We would lose our sacred places to heal and be free. Each of us in this country – and all of those people who will follow us in the future – would be less free.

That’s why I’ve devoted my life to this movement, and why I’ll continue working toward expanding and strengthening our National Conservation Lands. These places are our refuge. They are where we can find peace and wisdom and reconciliation in an often ugly and violent world. They make us better humans. They are our home. They are where we can be truly free.

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