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A Legendary Outdoorsman Talks About The Fight To Protect Public Lands

Ryan Callaghan

Ryan Callaghan wants to save your public lands. He’s involved with several grassroots movements across America’s west, going up against state and federal government mandates that aim to sell off millions of acres to private enterprises. It’s a fight that originally blew up on January 24th of this year, when the new GOP held congress introduced bills that would see public lands lose federal policing and allow them to sell millions of pristine acres to lower the deficit. The Trump administration has shown again and again it’s on board with these policies. Never was this so clear as yesterday’s massive Bears Ears and Grand Staircase land grabs.

If public lands turn private, fences will go up, animal populations will greatly suffer, and access to land that we all own will be gone — likely forever. Congress and the Trump White House are also ignoring the cold, hard fact that our public lands employ 6.1 million people and muster $646 billion for our economy. There’s literally no metric to indicate that selling of land for short-term mineral extraction will ever reach those numbers.

On the eve of the Bears Ears decision, we caught up with Callaghan — a guide, outdoorsman, and activist — to talk about these very issues. His ethos is simple: We need nature and nature needs us. It’s a mantra that keeps him fighting the good fight, at a time when people working on the front lines are more important than ever.

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On average, how much time would you say you spend out in the wild?

A lot of it’s based off where we live. We’re in this very small valley with a very small community in Idaho. It’s about 7,000 feet in elevation. Real steep valley walls and basically the valleys are the only thing that is private, and everything else is public ground.

You can very, very quickly get out. Ease of access is very high. So I’m in a tent probably 50-60 days. Otherwise, I’m outside either on my mountain bike or fishing, skiing, hunting, looking for mushrooms, whatever I can do multiple days a week. So… a lot.

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I miss that. My cousins just built a place right up against the Olympic National Forest. You go out their backdoor and you just walk into the national forest. It’s such a different way to think and live. You can just go get some chanterelles because they’re in season. Or you’ll just go get some huckleberries because they’re in season.

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I get plenty of days in the woods and they all have a purpose, whether it’s trying to find boletes, chanterelles, morels, chicken of the woods, or shed antlers, to skiing and mountain biking and fishing and everything in between.

Typically, whenever I’m doing something that involves high exertion, I’m thinking about where I’m going to cook that night too. The food’s almost always coming out of the same areas that I’m out recreating in.

That’s a very good way to look at the outdoors is, “What do I want to eat tonight? What’s around me?” Letting that be the menu.

Yeah. It really makes you a part of your surroundings and you pay attention to an infinite amount of details that were previously just a blur. That’s why I say that hiking isn’t for me because when I get on a trail and I have a point “A” to point “B” type of mentality. Then you just miss all of that minutia that you’d really be paying attention to when you have no particular destination in mind.

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Let’s talk a little bit about public land. You give speeches on steps of state houses and you’re very active with groups like Keep It Public. What’s going on right now with the federal government and what’s the threat?

This a topic that sadly not everybody’s hip to. Since Teddy Roosevelt decided in the Antiquities Act to put some structure out there, some regulation on forest service land — making the US National Forest — there have been groups out there in deep opposition to that. What we’re seeing right now is you have all this public ground that’s federally managed by Bureau of Land Management or the US Forest Service who allow us access to that land. There are a lot of people out there that want to see that land sold flat out to take care of our debt or increase mineral extraction.

If we sold all the public land, would that even put a dent in the national debt, really?

No. That’s a phenomenal question that no one seems to have an answer to. To be honest with you, the way I look at it is just the number of jobs the lands are supporting right now is what’s important.

People argue the number of jobs that public lands could support would increase if we upped our extraction methods. But those extraction methods are getting so efficient that they’re actually supporting fewer jobs.

To me, it’s just not an option. Even if it could solve the debt problem, we’d be giving this stuff up and it would be gone forever. Man, the land is just not something they’re making any more of.

There’s also the fact that tourism is one of the biggest industries in the United States. A big part of that tourism is our public land. It feels like getting rid of it is sort of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Yes, exactly. Out here in the west, there’s always this push and pull between the folks that are making money cutting down trees, your traditional extractive industry stuff. But there’s a flip side of that.

So, my dad worked in a lumber mill when he was just starting out. That was what everybody did back then. It was like, “Why would you work anywhere else?” It’s a phenomenal wage. And it’s gonna be here “forever.”

By the time I started to chase my own paychecks, I was guiding fishermen, guiding hunters, and whitewater folks. And so, it was people that were coming out there, and I was getting a good paycheck and making things work off of something that seems completely harmless to the resources out here. At that exact same time, that lumber mill was getting shut down and all these folks that thought they had jobs for a lifetime were out of one.

I look at it this way: I have cousins who would probably all be working in the trees, myself included. Now they’re getting into hospitality or guiding or, in my case, writing about the places. So, maybe that’s part of the progression of how we live and prosper from these lands.

For all I know it could be fleeting. But when you’re on the water with these folks, or you’re walking through mixed grass prairies, you just see this profound appreciation from anybody you take out.

It’s always the same, man. They’re initially a little bit frightened or apprehensive because things are so big and so open. And, typically, they haven’t taken the time to look at a map and see what’s public and what’s private. So it’s unfathomable to most people, when you say, “if you just keep going this direction, you could hike through half of Canada before you hit interstate.”

It’s amazing how much land is out there.

Yeah, it is. But you know, it’s amazing how many people are out there, too. You know, it’s not just a US citizen thing, anybody from anywhere can come out and enjoy this stuff. And I feel like it’s all critical.

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Where is the fight right now to protect our public lands?

There are all sorts of crazy things going on from the dismantling of some protections in the EPA, to proposed massive selloffs of millions of acres, to funds being set aside to explore potential selloffs. Most recently, some of the ones that I was the most active on, was HR 621 [Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017] and HR 622 [Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act]. One has the proposed sale of 3.3 million acres. The other was the dismantling of federal law enforcement on federal lands. Those ones were both scary.

There seems to be a lot of unknowns at the moment which really can lead to sleepless nights.

Absolutely. I recently met with Secretary Zinke down in New Mexico and I think we are in for a long haul on the public lands fight.

What can people do to help avert this?

That’s the biggest message. I tell people all the time, we’re not political. All we look at is the fact we recreate every single day on federally managed public lands. When hunting guides look at the hard numbers from their customer base, they found that 85% of hunting customers exclusively use public land. So, that’s where we feel very, very confident about being loud about these issues.

We often say this political process is not an “elect somebody and walk away” thing. It’s hands-on. Everybody’s got a responsibility and a civic duty to influence your duly elected officials. And, so, your influence needs to be anywhere from the county to the state to your federal representatives.

Democracy only works if it’s active.

It only works if it’s active. Exactly. It’s not a party issue. If you don’t like something, or if you like something, you need to write an email or call, and there are lots of things, like apps, that are making that super easy and super streamlined these days.

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Because there’s an ecosystem at stake and we need to do more to save it from getting paved.

I’ve found that there’s a certain hipness to politics right now. So, yeah man, if I can influence somebody to just shoot one email, one time to your duly elected, that’s really all it takes. So many people think it’s this very daunting experience, where it’s not. It’s almost medically clean at this point. ‘Cause it’s very rare you’re gonna have some back and forth with anybody. It’s just an aid that is saying, “Yeah, we got this many people commenting on this side of this subject.” They’re just paying attention to the numbers more than anything else.

If the recreation side of things can come together as more of a unified voice — that’s birdwatchers, hikers, bikers, mountaineers, hunters, fishermen, and even your retiree dog walkers — we’re gonna be an unstoppable force. Right now, we’re just a little too fractured.

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What recommendation could you give someone who wants to get out there and safely experience the wilderness?

You want to start within your comfort zone. Just pick a trail someplace. There are all sorts of interesting opportunities out there. If you’re in the midwest, you can get out and canoe different stretches of a river. If you want to start kind of a step before that, you could hire a guide to go out and take a whitewater rafting trip or boat trip. Take a pure scenic nature trip. Just start small.

Oftentimes it’s best to just go out and stand someplace in the cold air where you can sit and think and be quiet. And there’s plenty of places to do that. And, you know, truth be told, when I’m hunting and fishing, I’m doing more of that than anything.

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You can support the fight to save our public lands by donating time and or money to the following groups: Keep It Public, Outdoor Alliance, The Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. Each group is on the frontlines of saving our public lands.

Don’t’ forget to contact your local and federal representatives and let your voice be heard about our public lands.

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