At dawn on a January morning, the countryside around Stuttgart, Arkansas is an impressionist painting, brooding flooded hardwood bottoms fading without banks into slow gray rivers, harvested rice fields in colors of light butternut and yellow, turned black Mississippi Delta earth. Perfect clouds of snow geese, mallards, Canadas, teal, and wood ducks show dark and beautiful against the leaden winter sky. We–my son and daughter, wife, Lab pup, and I–saw it all not from a duck blind, but from Interstate 40, on the return to Montana from a 5000 mile-driving odyssey to visit family in Alabama, friends in Mississippi and Louisiana. We were towing a 14-foot aluminum boat, bought cheap from an old friend, so we traveled home slowly, not like on foot or horseback, but slowly enough to look at our country, to marvel at its wonders, to ponder its troubles.

I first made this drive 23 years ago. The cities are much bigger now. The farms are bigger, too, and what used to be called “plowing it fencerow to fencerow” is no more–nowadays, there are few fencerows, just a sweep of monocultured earth from horizon to horizon. It stands to reason–when I first drove through Stuttgart on my way to Montana, the U.S. population was 244 million. It is 311 million now, plus an estimated 10-15 million undocumented immigrants. The planet held 5 billion in 1988, now there’s seven billion.

Those giant farms are no accident. There are a lot of hungry people out there, and more being born as I write this.

I’m an optimist by nature and, I believe, by dint of paying attention. Those clouds of ducks and geese make my heart leap, both as a hunter and a conservationist, in part because it means that we as a people have done something right, honoring the vast arteries and swamps of the Mississippi River Basin, the prairie potholes of the nursery heartland. On New Year’s Eve, a buddy and I made a cold and windy run through Chef Menteur Pass in the marshes near New Orleans, passing the half-sunken hulks of boats and houses tossed like Legos by Katrina. We cast swim baits in the shadows of new flood control walls, within sight of the New Orleans skyline and the steaming, smokestack-intensive industrial might of southern Louisiana. Although we ended that freezing day fishless, those marshes often hold some of the finest redfish and speckled trout fishing in the world. The 1972 Clean Water Act helps to keep the managers of those crucial industries honest. The 1996 monofilament gill-net ban, so bitterly contested by some commercial fishermen, has proved its worth, economically and ecologically.

Back at my boyhood home in Alabama, my nephew showed me his Christmas-gift trail camera, which he’d set out below our little catfish pond. A fine whitetail buck attacked a rub tree on the video, then turned to the camera, eyes wide and suddenly suspicious in the darkness, and walked backward exactly the way he had approached the tree. We cheered the genius of his caution, and remained glued to the device as the video showed a succession of smaller, less wary bucks, approaching the rub tree, sniffing it, giving it a tentative shove with smallish horns.

There was room, and time, with shells bought cheaply from Wal-Mart, to shoot a new Remington 870 from Santa Claus at clay pigeons thrown, poorly, from a hand-held thrower.

There were wild turkeys in the woods, feeding on the acorns from the chestnut and red oaks that we carefully left when we cut some of the timber in 1982.

The bragging board at the Gander Mountain store in Huntsville is replete with photos of happy hunters and fishermen, big blue catfish, turkeys, big bucks, strings of crappie and bedding shellcrackers, big frog-busting Lake Guntersville bass hoisted from beneath the milfoil–all this a wondrous testimony to clean water and hardwood forests and rich land and human beings who care enough to make sure it all goes on.

The place where I learned to shoot doves at age 12, and went on night missions to a hidden and private catfish pond, is now a vast subdivision. It’s old enough to have shade trees growing among the houses. The approach to the land my father bought in the mid-70s, then corn and cotton and soybean fields, with fencerows for rabbit hunting and still a lot of bobwhite quail, is a subdivision, too, and the creeks that once wound down to the main Hurricane Creek are ditches, straightened and dutifully denuded of all vegetation by herbicides. The red earth is gutted by erosion that has filled up much of the old creek where we fished for bass and brim, redhorse and bullheads. I once watched my hunting buddy make a “watch this” long-distance shot on a whitetail doe here. Today, a half-dozen houses stand where that 7mm bullet passed.

The pasturelands along the creek are abandoned and grown up thick with green ash, Chinese privet, and sweetgum, not because cattle prices are not good, but because all of that ground floods too frequently and violently now. Channelizing and spraying tributaries–let’s call it what it is: the destruction of environmental capital through ignorance–has tremendous costs. We scratch chiggers on New Year’s Day, which has never happened before, do the St. Vitus Dance to the ankle bites of fire ants that did not exist here in 1977, worry about Lyme and other diseases from the armies of ticks that, like the chiggers, never seem to go to bed anymore. There are armadillos now, more coyotes, fewer whip-poor-wills, and it’s very hard to get access to any kind of hunting or shooting land unless you have a lot of money, or already have it in your family.

As Charles Dickens wrote in “A Tale of Two Cities,” of the years leading up to the French Revolution, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….” Driving 5000 miles, putting that credit card in that gas pump and feeling the cold sweat trickle down your spine as the numbers rack up and up, is a luxury unheard of in most countries, or in history. From what I saw on this trip, American hunting and fishing has never been so good, and never, I believe, have so many people been so joyously pursuing it, while buying boats and tackle and guns and ammo and tree stands and top-level clothing and boots. And yet I got the clear impression from the urban sprawl, the intensive agriculture, the endless energy developments in the West, that we stand at a crossroads. We cannot be the bread basket and energy source for the planet if we hope to keep what we love in our outdoor heritage, or at least we will not keep our fishing and hunting and freedom if we try to feed and heat the world while operating on the same models, the same assumptions, that we take for granted now.

While eating lunch in Amarillo, next door to the store that sells Somalian groceries and phone cards for immigrants, I read in the Globe-News that the Ogallala Aquifer here fell 2.6 feet in 2011. The water in the Ogallala is 2 to 6 million years old. The annual rain and snowfall around Amarillo averages about 19.7 inches. The world’s population is insatiable, and our environmental capital–that which produces our fish and wildlife, in addition to our basic food, water and air–is finite. Tow an aluminum boat through Denver traffic at 6:30 p.m. on a weekday and you cannot help but feel that we are running out of wiggle room, that decisions about our natural resources today have far more immediate and more dramatic consequences than they did when our population, and the population of the world, was not so high.

In many ways, it is the best of times. What we need to do is explore the ways we can keep it that way. A start is to read this new report on the future of America’s forests and rangelands, smartly compiled by the U.S. Forest Service, and this excellent story, written and photographed by native son and sportsman John Pollmann, on what’s happening to upland bird and waterfowl habitat in South Dakota in the face of record agricultural production.