I left Alabama when I was in my mid-twenties, to live and work in the West. I never planned to stay gone this long. People I grew up with, hunting and fishing friends, school friends, and extended family sometimes ask me why I’ve stayed here in Montana, and why I am raising my children here, so far from the rivers and creeks I grew up on, from the hardwood bottoms and flat-top foothills of the southern Cumberland Mountains that were and are so important to me. I’ve thought a lot about how to answer that question.
The answer boils down to public lands, and the freedom they offer to people like us, who are of somewhat less than moderate means, and who live, when the work is done, to fish and hunt and shoot and wander.
I mostly grew up in the country, and at a time when there were few whitetail deer. Small game hunting was the obsession, and access to that kind of hunting was not usually a problem. You could leave home with a pocket full of 20 gauge shells, from high brass 4s to low brass 8s, and come home with a squirrel, dove, snipe, quail (they disappeared around 1984), a rabbit, even a teal if you were lucky. By the time I went away to work and college, all that land was leased for deer hunting, or posted by the owners.
During my years in college in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, hunting was hard to come by. As students, my friends and I didn’t have any money to lease hunting acreage, and, until a buddy got a small flatbottom boat, we had to look pretty hard even to find good local fishing. The Black Warrior River right in town was pretty polluted, but a trotline brought up some pretty nice channel cats and blues. The tail race under North River had mind boggling striper fishing, for big fish, but a rash of drownings in the obviously dangerous spillway had caused some overzealous official to declare the whole place off limits. We explored the deer hunting in the Bankhead National Forest, ran limblines in the no-man’s land of the Sipsey Swamps, shot a few squirrels in the Sipsey Wilderness, caught little pygmy rattlers in the clearcuts of the Oakmulgee. My friends and I had a kind of mental map of all the public lands within a hundred miles or so of town, and we wandered them all.
The South has a wealth of public lands and I have not seen anywhere near enough of them. But it is the vastness of the gift of public lands in the West that has kept me here, and made me want to raise my children here. In the first ten years of living in Montana, I saw as much of that land as I possibly could. I walked for days through the Bitterroots, all the way to the Selway River and back, eating huckleberries and fire-roasted cutthroats and studying cougar tracks in the sand. I shot a 5×6 bull behind the ranch my wife and I managed the very first year I was a legal Montana resident (and did not kill another bull for five years after that, despite strenuous effort). Chased antelope south of Jordan on the BLM lands, spent a week in the Missouri Breaks looking for a big muley buck, hunted the Custer National Forest down Hanging Woman Creek because who could pass up a place with a name like that?
Every year, the gift has been more important to my family. We camp every summer on public land along the Marias and the lower Missouri and the Yellowstone, paying nothing, sleeping on the sand, or in the car if the bugs are bad. Swim all day, some days, or head overland looking for bullsnakes or rattlers, studying the country. Closer to home, we go west, to the mountains, and catch cutthroats, hunt horns, climb. We shoot thousands of rounds of ammo–pistol, rifle, shotgun–targets from 20 feet to 800 yards, careful with our backstops and careful always to clean up after ourselves. Our firewood comes from standing dead timber on public land. Our hunting is almost all done on public land, except for a few occasions when a landowner will let us take a doe or two, and even then, we’d rather be on the public, where nobody is worrying about where you are, what you are doing, or what time you are coming out. Yes, there’s better bird hunting on private land, but I’ll take freedom to roam and a lighter vest over a limit near the truck.
A couple of years ago, I made it back to the Sipsey River, in Alabama, not too far a walk into the Bankhead National Forest. It was an astounding wild place, the protection for all that river system that feeds the pristine and striper-rich waters of Smith Lake. We took the sons and daughters and nephews and snorkeled down the Conasauga River in Georgia, just to look at the Noah’s Ark of strange fish-darters and stonerollers, logperch and redhorse that thrive in that cold water of the Chattahoochee National Forest. I vowed as a teenager to fish the Jacks River, deep in the Cohutta Wilderness, and I still plan to do that. Still plan to canoe down the Conecuh in Alabama, too, and spend a few springtime days after a rain in Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, and if there are dangerous dope smugglers there, they’ll leave us alone or reap the whirlwind.
To the politicians who say they don’t know why we have public lands, or who are so constipated by ideology that they cannot see what every public lands hunter knows, I say: Join us.
Let’s go elk and antelope hunting on the BLM lands of the Fortification Creek in Wyoming, or drift into the Hole-in-the-Wall and walk the same trails as Butch Cassidy and his gang. Rock climbing and safe shooting on the vast federal estate of Nevada, fishing the high country of Colorado, riding horses to New Mexico’s Valle Vidal. We’ll run hogs in the Homochitto National Forest in Mississippi, shoot ducks on the Cache River.
Join us, and see what free people do on the lands that visionaries set aside for us all, long ago, so that we would never lose the basic frontiersman’s edge that made this country different from all the others, so that our children would grow up strong under heaven’s blue eye and learn the ways of wildlife and wild places, and learn what it is that we fight for, when we have to fight.
Join us. We’ll show you something that you’ll want to fight for, too.