Who owns the West?
The good news is you do--most of it, anyway. Here in Idaho, for instance, federal lands make up 62 percent of the state's total acreage (which makes us third on the list of states with the most federally owned land--behind Nevada and Utah). That means, for the most part, you can visit about two-thirds of the state's land without being ticketed, fined or shot for trespassing.
The bad news, of course, is the same as the good news. Public land means all of the public can use it in all the varied ways the public will. We've all witnessed what can happen to a landscape opened up to anyone and everyone, especially to livestock grazing and natural resource extractive industries. And, as we know all too well, when there is an opportunity to make money, exploitation soon follows.
Enter the public land watchdogs: People whose priorities go beyond the almighty dollar. People who value the land and its native inhabitants. People who labor tirelessly against inane government bureaucracy, greedy industry and ruleless ranchers.
Consider Katie Fite the protectress of the Owyhees.
After a nine-year stint working in habitat improvement for the Idaho Department Fish & Game, Fite became "completely dismayed at what the livestock industry got away with at taxpayers' expense" and frustrated with the realization that "a state agency is a shackled agency." She left the public sector and began working with citizens groups dedicated to safeguarding public lands. She worked as conservation director for Committee for Idaho's High Desert for four years and then last year joined forces as biodiversity director with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring western watersheds and wildlife.
Fite knows, loves and respects the Owyhees. She valiantly and passionately fights day in and day out to keep the public lands--our lands--healthy and safe. She spends a few days every week traversing the six million acres of volcanic rock, sagebrush and rugged canyons that comprise the sprawling Owyhee desert across southwestern Idaho, northern Nevada and eastern Oregon. When not out in the field monitoring and documenting the public land's condition, Fite spends many an hour reading government documents, attending hearings and meetings and nipping at the heels of the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service reminding them they are stewards of the land and to do what is right.
"It is an endless game," says Fite of environmentalists taking on government and industry. "For every battle we win, Lord knows how many minions are figuring out a way to change it."
When asked why she continues fighting the good fight Fite's face lights up, "It is amazing to see them get so upset when we use science and speak the truth." That and the beauty of land. Fite is one of those people who vacations where she works. She spends her free time hiking and camping with her two dogs, Mesa and Dobe (formerly known as Adobe) in the Jarbidge area or the aspen country near Mountain City.
"The natural resource extraction lifestyle is not sustainable," says Fite. "The West as endless frontier is a myth. There needs to be a fundamental change in the West--an understanding of limits and limitations. There is a limit to how much you can use the land before it crashes."
Some advice from Fite to people concerned about the state of the West's public lands: "Get out there and do something about it."
Fite encourages people, both believers and doubters, to see for themselves the damage cattle do to public lands. She recommends driving Mud Flat Road to Poison Creek for a firsthand look at the damage wrought by cattle on an arid landscape.
"It is just lunacy to continue doing what we are doing to public lands."