Last month, I was invited to teach public lands and wilderness policy and ethics at the Tidelines Institute in Gustavus, Alaska. My six students were part of the Glacier Bay Year program, brought together to explore living and learning in a self-governed community that believes in the pillars of labor, scholarship, resilience in the face of challenge. We spent the final week of the course paddling in Glacier Bay, which was, for those students, the first time many of them slept for multiple nights on the moss and rocks, putting the boats above tideline, and searching for spruce pitch to start fires. On the final day, we howled at the bay, at our time together, a tiny pack of humans navigating the big waters of the world for a moment. One of the students remarked, “We are the only thing that protects public lands.”
As we paddled on public waters, students discussed the recent question posed by the teacher: Who owns the wilderness? We all do, was the echo on the water. Should we return national parks to tribes whose land it was before colonization? How do we manage for climate change impacts in wilderness without making management prescriptions in places meant to be left alone? What systems of governance should be in place to protect these open spaces of democracy, these public commons? Though we have federal laws that govern some specific issues on public lands, it is the intergenerational support for public lands and waters, these things we hold in common, that carries them forward. National parks, wilderness, clean water, wildlife, these are not given to us. In Alaska, the Arctic Refuge, the Tongass National Forest, these conservation campaigns have stretched across three generations of activists, which each new student of the movement deciding on what is important to protect, maintain, or change.
At Audubon, we invest in the next generations of land stewards, water protectors, decolonizing champions, by giving them support, guidance, and opportunities to be on the land with each other, asking questions, listening, paying attention to the geese flying overhead, and the sound of wind on shallow water. From Glacier Bay to the Arctic Refuge, learning from the land may be the greatest lessons any of us will carry through life. They may learn climate change issues in a classroom, but together we can paddle up to a tidewater glacier and listen to the moaning ice melt into the saltwater. They can read about caribou, but together we can walk in their trails for a week on the ridges above the Marsh Fork of the Canning River, crossing the continental divide back and forth like our four-legged cousins. Humility and compassion are caring for each other’s blistered feet, helping someone across a river, laughing in the cold and rain. Imagine if everyone in a position of political power began their tenure with ten minutes of watching humpback whales bubble feeding in Hobart Bay followed by a night of camping on shore listening to those same whales speak to each other.
People often say education is not worth the investment, or it’s hard to measure the outcomes. We forget that we were all students of something, somewhere, at one point. We carried lessons from the land into our lives. We built our feelings of empathy for the natural world on those early explorations. Rocks, insects, city parks, nests, spruce tips, each of these was a window into a world larger than us. If you are reading this article, you were probably one of those students of the land who decided to carry those lessons to action and a life of advocacy. Because we are so many, the gift of learning from the land gives us immeasurable success like a thousand wing beats moving north. Let’s move onward together.