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Branching Out: Escaping pressure

Locations: Columns Published

In this week’s Mountain Journal, a nonprofit journal centered on Yellowstone National Park, I read an editorial about the packed trails locals are experiencing in Livingston, Montana under the shadow of Bozeman’s population explosion amid COVID-19. 

I felt their angst over an attempt to find pleasure in the wilds, only to find stress amid crowds. The close-in trails around our own growing mountain town are on their way to a similar fate, based upon current trends and growth predictions. Despite that, it does make my heart smile to see the increasing attraction to our natural world by an increasingly diverse user group. 

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However, I worry for the animals.

As I wrote last month, I rent and live with an old hippy/forest gnome. Over the last 20 years, on his humble piece of flat-ass ground (across from a vacant lot and an extensive trailer park near the heart of old town) he has converted a chain link fenced lawn into many of the natives we admire in the wilds- yet often pass on at local nurseries. They’re happy under his care, growing exuberantly. So much so, that I have no urge to leave this enchanting, unruly model of Colorado’s arid high country. 

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The nature fix here? It’s unreal. The rub-off effect of living here has opened my heart and mind to the creatures of our world more so than ever before. The antics of an insect or bird, seemingly insignificant creatures in today’s high-stimulation world, can leave me fuller than winning the lottery or a really good kiss. (Well, maybe not that last one.)

Beyond our towns, out there? We’re pressuring wildlife to death. 

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Over Cottonwood Pass,Vail’s elk numbers are down 50 percent. For mulies, Colorado Parks and Wildlife reports that “23 of 54 herds (43%),” failed to meet desirable quotas. Another one of Mountain Journal’s articles examines our recreational impacts upon wildlife.

Ironically, busy trails and packed trailheads are a good thing — we want Nature. We care! Can we translate that into action is the real question. As a landscape designer, an  amateur naturalist, a mom dreaming of grandkids— I feel an urgency for change. 

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It’s time to ditch the suburban narrative on land ownership and earn our cred as legit mountain people. Let’s ditch our imported aesthetics. It’s time to define a “new Western aesthetic,” as Wallace Stegner chided: “You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time.”

Can we choose the very things we run to — rockiness, a sense of space, volume, complexity, dimensionality — and apply that to our towns and yards? The fact that most people want “Zeroscape and low maintenance” leads me to believe that once people get their American Dream —  land and a house — they want so little to do with the land part of their investment. They’d rather go ”out there.”.

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Why is “getting away” from the very thing we’ve worked so hard to acquire, our norm? What cultural/marketing zeitgeist convinced us that hanging out and tending our piece of planet is lame, compared to all the fun stuff we do “out there,” past the city limit sign?

Scrolling social media and emails, we might sign petitions demanding wildlife migration corridors for antelope and land bridges for bears and mountain lions — but what about the connective tissue in town? What about the habitat, cover, and forage that’s so critical to the common creatures right here in our own backyards? 

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As public lands groan under the weight of our personal bests and Strava scores, doesn’t it make sense to convert our private property into the kinds of places we don’t want or need to escape?

Todd Wilkinson’s aforementioned piece in Mountain Journal on recreation and wildlife pointed out, “though thrill-seeking riders see badlands as a perfect new virgin playground, these outskirts of Dubois are home to things the Dakotas and Moab can only dream of having — a rich assemblage of wildlife.”

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How much more pressure are we willing to place on the backcountry for the sake of our play? How many more trails will we break before we push aliveness from even the front country?

Let’s try blazing some trails in our own backyards.

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