What's Tony Thinking

Who Speaks for the Land?


Yesterday evening we attended, via Zoom, a “comment meeting” held by the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners. The subject was the proposed management plan for the “East Moraine.” In this photo the East Moraine (just about half of it visible) is the largely un-forested area on the left side of the Lake.

For years it had been privately owned by a number of different landholders. In recent years a coalition of public groups has acquired most of it for preservation and public use. With that change, there has been increased public use and access. I hike up the moraine frequently, as do others.

Various stakeholders have been involved in putting together the 98-page management plan. Last night’s meeting was for public comment on the plan.

It began with people articulating their particular interests. A dog owner asked that the dogs on leash requirement be relaxed for dogs that can be controlled by voice or electronic command. A representative of a mountain biking club urged that there be increased access for those on bikes. Others spoke from their perspective as horseback riders, operators of 4-wheelers, or owners of adjacent property.

Things shifted when a woman who identified herself as Nez Perce, of the Joseph Band, meaning she is of the lineage of both Chief Josephs (the older and younger) spoke of her frequent visits to the Wallowas and her enjoyment of recreation, particularly horseback riding and hiking. She too liked having her dogs with her on such outings. But then she said that thought what people were calling “recreation” (including her own) ought to be a lower priority than habitat preservation and ecological health, in other words, the land. She spoke for the land. She was willing to abridge here own recreational interests and enthusiasms on behalf of the health and integrity of the land and habitat.

Until that point, the meeting was largely about the varied and increasing human uses of the East Moraine. All that pretty well was lumped under the rubric of “recreation.” And the tone was one of mediating between the various human groups, interests, claimants and activities. No one spoke for the land per se. It was only a staging area for human uses. No one spoke for the land, until the Nez Perce woman, Bobby Conners, spoke up.

“Recreation” is an interesting word. It seems to have acquired a meaning that is something like “humans at play,” pursuing our many interests and pleasures with all our toys/equipment, whether that be hiking or hang-gliding, riding horses or riding bikes, roaming on four-wheelers or letting our dogs roam free. There has even talk of commercial outfits that would put on events like weddings at the top of the moraine, which would require access for all sorts of vehicles. (This second, aerial, photo gives a different perspective on the East Moraine.)

When you take the word “recreation” apart you get “re” and “creation.” That doesn’t so much mean all sorts of varied human activities as it does some sort of renewal or restoration associated with contact with creation, with the earth and the land. The nub of the issue, articulated by Bobby Conners, is that the contemporary meaning of recreation as human pursuit of pleasure might make the older meaning, renewal in encounter with creation unlikely, even impossible. That said, it’s not that you don’t do anything on or even to the land. It needs some care. Parts of the forested end need thinning. Native plants propagate when judiciously harvested. Ground nesting birds thrive in the absence of curious dogs.

In order to have “recreation” in the older sense of the term, encounter with God’s creation in its more or less natural state, some (maybe most) of our recreational interests may have to be limited, even — horrors! — prohibited. These days the idea of limiting human activity, deferring to something bigger than us, the land and its future, has become, for us humans almost “unnatural.”

It’s ironic. For years the land was privately held and stayed pretty much as is. Of course, “development” might have happened on the East Moraine. The threat of development motivated people, like us, to support it’s acquisition by and for the public. But now that the public has it there is a danger of we the public loving it so much that we destroy the very thing we wished to save.

p.s./ update. Kathleen Ackley, Director of the Wallowa Trust, has pointed out that others in addition to Ms. Conners spoke “for the land,” particularly another Nez Perce leader, Nakia Williamson. But also others in addition to native peoples. I was in and out to the meeting a bit to take a phone call, so missed some speakers. ABR

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