Public Lands as Places of Community and Equity

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Aldo Leopold

Public lands were created for all Americans – no matter their race, age, gender, religion or socioeconomic status. They are a uniquely American idea that is rooted in deep sense of egalitarianism. While each of us may use America’s public lands differently, our public lands speak to a rich and diverse tapestry of history, culture, and sacred traditions that are deeply woven into the collective American experience. Our public lands act as areas where people from diverse backgrounds, passions and perspectives can all come together as one with one another and the land. When we arrive at the trailhead, the river’s edge or where the sand meets the sea, we are all equal. We are not Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, black or white. We are beating hearts, eyes opened in amazement, and arms outstretched to the beauty and majesty of creation and wonder that lies before us. Our public lands belong to all of us to enjoy today and they are the inheritance we pass down to our children and grandchildren tomorrow.

Public Lands As Places of Spirituality and Solitude

Whether prayerfully meditating at the edge of the Grand Canyon, mindfully hiking the Appalachian Trail, contemplatively fly-fishing the Blackfoot River, enjoying the splendor of the Everglades, photographing the Grand Tetons, or simply giving gratitude for the incredible wildlife found in our national parks, monuments and forests, America’s public lands provide an incredible environment for solitude, prayer, thanksgiving, and self-reflection. In a noisy, busy, and often hurried world, our public lands are important places of retreat where one can slow down, rest, and grow in communion with oneself, God, others and all of creation. In a society constantly on the go and where we are always connected through our phones, public lands provide a necessary place where we can disconnect in order to reconnect with something far greater than ourselves. For many, our public lands can be an important place for Sabbath rest and reflection. 

“Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter — the struggle against the compulsion of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.”

Father Henri Nouwen

Public Lands as Sacred Cultural Places

Our public lands also provide unique opportunities to grow in our understanding of various sacred traditions, cultures and faith communities who have used these lands for generations. Indeed, many of America’s public lands contain irreplaceable sacred sites that weave together the history, spiritual practices, unique traditions, and cultural identity of native tribes and traditional communities connected to these landscapes. As national treasures, these landscapes are a rich and diverse tapestry that make up the core of American history, culture, sacred traditions and identity.                   

Public Lands As Places of Health and Wellbeing

Every year millions of kids and families rely on America’s public lands to engage in outdoor recreation, connect them with nature, and enjoy America’s wildlife. For many, America’s public lands are their gym, where they go to exercise, recreate, socialize with friends and family and maintain physical, mental and emotional health. For families, sharing experiences with kids on our public lands connect generations of Americans from the past, present, and future. In a world where parents and kids are often stressed and overloaded, our public lands and waters offer a ready antidote. These are the places where families can hike a trail, watch wildlife, camp together, catch a fish, learn about history, or just breathe a little more easily.

Author Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods to describe the alienation from the outdoors exacerbated by rapid social and technological change, poor urban planning, and disappearing open space. The Children and Nature Network’s research library shows the growing body of peer reviewed science that connects nature deficit disorder with obesity, attention disorders, diminished use of the senses, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. The good news is there’s no struggle to identify the cure for Nature Deficit Disorder. It’s nature!

According to peer-reviewed research published between 1970 and 2015, the benefits of nature contact for children include better:

• Physical health         • Psychological well-being         • Cognitive functioning and self-control          • Affiliation and imaginative play             • Affiliation with other species and the natural world.

In addition to better sensory processing skills and gross motor skills, decreases in depression, increased mental acuity and creativity, and a stronger sense of compassion and empathy, getting kids into nature fundamentally resulted in smarter, happier and healthier kids who were more likely to be environmental stewards as adults.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” John Muir.

The benefits of nature is not unique to children as some doctors in Scotland are using recent research to “prescribe nature” to deal with a variety of chronic illnesses including high blood pressure, anxiety, stress and depression. Research has also shown the importance of getting into nature to improve cognitive and creative abilities in adults. The gift our public lands are a great gift from the Creator not only for their beauty and majesty, but for the important role these lands play in helping all God’s children be happy, healthy and live into the fullness of their potential.   

Public Lands as Places of Healing and Wholeness

America’s public lands are also important places for many to seek a sense of peace, healing and wholeness. Earth Keepers works with many combat veterans seeking the solace, solitude and healing grace found through our public lands and waters. Places like Bears Ears National Monument is considered to be a deeply spiritual place of great peace and healing not only by many Native tribes, but also by spiritual communities throughout the nation who have traveled to and advocated for protection of these sacred lands. Many traditional communities also rely on public lands to gather sacred herbs and medicines for spiritual ceremonies. Others visit the wide open expanses of our public lands as places to grieve and where they can go to be in prayer, quiet, and surrounded by beauty of God as well as be in sacred spaces large enough to hold their grief, pain, and hurt.

Public Lands Provide Opportunities for Stewardship of God’s Creation

As the Psalms remind us, “the Earth is the Lords and all that is in it” (Psalm 24). We hold the earth in sacred trust and are called to be responsible stewards of God’s creation. As God’s faithful tenants, we are called to live in right relationship with creation and to develop responsible attitudes, behaviors and practices to how we use the earth’s land, water, and natural resources; this is especially true for our public lands that we hold and share in common. As we care for God’s creation, we also affirm that creation cares for us. Indeed, with grateful hearts, we acknowledge that the gift of our public lands help sustain our livelihood by providing us with clean air, water, wildlife and recreational opportunities. Through America’s public lands we encounter not only the beauty of creation and the majesty of the Creator, but also acknowledge that our public lands provide everyone–whether rich or poor–with the opportunity to experience the wonder, joy, silence, solitude, and healing power of God’s grace.