I saw more than 1,000 miles of California during the holiday season, and’this won’t surprise you’it caused me to think a lot about land conservation. We drove from Lake Tahoe’which I’ve long considered one of the most beautiful places on earth’south, between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the eastern border of California, past Death Valley and the Mojave Desert, to the highly developed oasis of Palm Springs. And then, after leaving the freeways and sprawl of Los Angeles, we drove north, through the famous agricultural center of the San Joaquin Valley, through the San Francisco Bay Area, to the wine country to the north.
It was, truly, a trip of contrasts’9,000-foot mountains covered in snow, alpine valleys, vast deserts covered in sage brush and occasional Joshua trees, irrigated grasslands, boundless vineyards, and housing developments, shopping malls, and the ceaseless traffic for which California is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view). So, now you’re expecting me to say that it was these last three aspects that put conservation in my mind’s forefront. No, what really and, honestly, surprised me was how uninhabited such large swaths of California were. We’d drive miles and’other than cars’see nothing but mountains and sage brush or pine trees, irrigation pipes or cattle.
The journey reminded me of one I made 10 years ago from Pocatello, Idaho, to Ft. Collins, Colo., a trip that mostly goes through the towering mountains and rolling prairies of Wyoming. And then I contrasted those drives to the congested one I’ve made hundreds of times, from Virginia to New York or New England or south to the Carolinas or Florida.
I can’t help but look at wild areas like eastern California, Wyoming or Idaho and think, “I wish the whole country could look like this.” And then I wonder, “Why can’t I live in a place like this?” But the sobering answer is, basically, “because no one else lives there.”
Thanks to telecommunications, more of us can work in remote offices at our homes. But most of us still have to work where other people are. And those people are in large population centers that have certain resources and easy transportation, like New York City or Los Angeles. Areas like the valleys along the Sierra Nevada and Wyoming have been relatively shielded by the inaccessible mountains and by their remoteness from major transportation routes or hubs, or because they aren’t suitable for intensive agriculture.
The challenge for all conservationists is balancing preservation of natural or historic resources with the pressure of America’s (and the world’s) ever-growing population.
Most preservationists agree that the best plan is to create cities and suburbs where people can live and work without driving an hour (or more). That means changing our suburbs rather drastically and squelching the myth that the American dream home is located on three, 10 or 25 acres. That may not be as hard as we might think, at least according to an article in last weekend’s Washington Post. The article quoted several couples who’d moved into large-lot subdivisions and then moved back to smaller houses or condos because they couldn’t stand the cost and effort required to maintain their property or were afraid of the noises the local animals made at night (I’m not kidding).
For us in the horse world, the parallel challenge will be to save enough land relatively close to these improved communities for riding. And that’s where parks, public equestrian centers and private land protected by conservation easements’and our support of them’will become ever important.