It’s been a long past 12 months. But on this First day of Spring 2021, the sun is finally shining a little bit brighter on us. I spent a lot of time on the trail this past year doing a lot of thinking about us as a society, our relationships with the land, and what public spaces mean to us as a society. This piece originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Mountaineers Magazine. Give it a read and feel free to leave a comment below. And here’s to a healthy, and kinder and gentler 2021.

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The emptiness of Northeastern Washington’s Salmo-Priest Wilderness has never felt more comforting. I stand alone on a ridge gazing out over waves of emerald ridges, shadowed by processions of white puffy clouds. Soft, warm breezes whistle through silver snags, prompting boughs of bear grass to delicately sway. I haven’t encountered another human all day; out in all of that wildness before me, some of Washington’s last grizzlies still roam. I finally feel safe and relieved from the ravages of the pandemic sweeping the world outside my wilderness.

The irony doesn’t escape me. Hiking in grizzly country usually has me slightly on edge. But here I am feeling totally at ease. For months, I have been wrestling with anxiety and bouts of depression, but on this bluebird August day – the first day in many – I once again feel carefree and at peace. I can’t get sick here. No one can harm me here. And I am living in the moment, not agonizing over the past or fretting over the future.

REALITY REVEALED

This has been a hell of a year for me and so many millions of my brothers and sisters. Life as we knew it has been completely ripped asunder by a novel contagion. The ineptitude of many of our elected officials in helping to contain it is just maddening. And if that wasn’t enough to set many of us on edge – add a summer of civil unrest and a growing economic divide, leaving many folks teetering on the edge of poverty.

While this year has certainly taken its toll on my nerves, I count myself fortunate. I have a safety net, secure housing, and strong support from family and friends. I have had the freedom to spend many days and miles on the trails, and almost all of my trail time has been far removed from the crowding so prevalent on many of our trails. I have been able to roam the backcountry and reflect – a lot – on where we are today as a society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought front and center to the American people many of the shortcomings seething in our society. It has clearly shown us how dangerously close we are to losing our middle class and having a two-tiered society where a small group of people controls huge amounts of wealth, while millions live in or on the edge of poverty. Tens of millions of us lack jobs or jobs paying living wages, adequate health care, childcare, access to mental healthcare, shelter, and retirement security.

PUBLIC LANDS SHORTCOMINGS

The pandemic has revealed many shortcoming in our public lands and trail systems as well. This year our public lands and trails have seen record levels of use, owing mainly to a huge influx of new recreationists because so many other pursuits have been closed or severely limited. And while we should be celebrating that folks of all ages, abilities, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds are recreating in our public lands, this new influx is alarming in that we are not prepared to properly handle it.

Our parks, trails, and public lands have never been properly funded or staffed, and this became even more evident with this year’s influx of new visitors. Many trails and parks were downright crowded this year – a threat to public health and safety, and to the sustainability of our natural resources. Infrastructure in our parks and forests has been crumbling and in need of updating and expansion even before this year’s record number of users. If ever we questioned how significantly our parks, public lands, and trails rank in our lives, this summer soundly assured us that the answer is “extremely important.” Americans truly value and need these places for their mental, physical, and spiritual health, and we need these places to ensure adequate habitat for the myriad species we share the planet with; for clean water and air, and to mitigate the effects of climate change.

We must properly invest in our public lands for all Americans today and for the millions yet to come. Our elected officials need to be leaders, properly funding and caring for our public lands. We the citizenry need to hold them accountable to this and pledge to be the best possible stewards of our lands.

LET’S FIGHT FOR CHANGE

I’ve had a lot of time this year to think while I have been on the trail, and this is what I have been thinking about: as we move forward, I want to see the following initiatives come from our elected officials, and I want to see my fellow Americans demand and commit to them. I want to see environmental education instituted at all levels, and not just in formal teaching settings – also through public service announcements and campaigns. I want to see our public lands adequately funded to properly maintain and expand our trails, access roads, campgrounds, picnic areas, visitor centers, ranger stations, and park housing. And I want to see these places fully staffed with rangers, trail crews, conservation officers, educators, and researchers.

I want to see our public lands expanded to include more urban parks and greenbelts connecting urban areas to backcountry areas. I want our public lands to be accessible to all. Underserved communities especially need parks, trails, and environmental education centers. We need to expand our public transportation systems, allowing urban dwellers to easily head to parks and preserves without being beholden to owning vehicles. We need more trails to help disperse crowding. We need more campgrounds too.

Now is the perfect time to institute a new Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) providing economic relief for many folks and allowing them to be part of building and expanding our natural heritage to leave a legacy. We can instill a new patriotism based on loving and caring for our land and having it accessible to all. In time, this program will do more than just provide economic relief – it will stimulate the economy as more folks choose to spend more time and money recreating outdoors.

The non-economic dividends will be great too, from leaving a smaller footprint on the planet by encouraging participation in non-consumptive outdoors activities to helping folks connect to the natural world for healthier and more meaningful lives. During these divisive times, the outdoors can act as a great unifier, bringing Americans of all persuasions together over our shared love for the outdoors.

The pandemic has revealed how the outdoors has become a saving grace for so many people suffering from economic and emotional turmoil. We clearly see how a pursuit as simple as taking a walk in nature is essential to our day-to-day functioning. As we prepare for the impending mental health crisis spawned by this pandemic, those walks will become more important than ever. We need to ensure that people have unfettered access to the outdoors.

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CRAIG AND SON GIOVANNI AT BARNUM POINT, CAMANO ISLAND. PHOTO BY HEATHER ROMANO.

This has been a difficult and trying year, yet COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to begin a new trajectory. We can come out of this with a new way of doing things and begin correcting the shortcomings and inequalities that have long reigned in our society. We have the opportunity now to instill real greatness through our public lands. I’m ready to welcome a new era in which our public lands are adamantly cherished and cared for by all. I hope you are too.


Craig Romano is an award winning author who has written more than 25 books including Day Hiking North Cascades 2nd editionUrban Trails Vancouver WA, and 100 Classic Hikes Washington (Mountaineers Books).

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

MAIN PHOTO: CRAIG ON AMPHITHEATER MOUNTAIN IN THE PASAYTEN WILDERNESS. PHOTO BY TED EVANS.

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