Opinion | Koehler: Our public lands in peril | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Koehler: Our public lands in peril

Tom Koehler
Guest column

As we observe National Public Lands Day today, with autumn upon us and winter right around the corner, contemplation sets in. While many trails and natural ecosystems benefit from the efforts of stewardship organizations, volunteers and municipal partners, the reality is our public lands are in peril.

An ongoing wildfire season is wreaking havoc on our rivers and forests. Our forests are naturally designed to provide us with robust and reliable water, clean air and various recreation opportunities. However, we must act now to ensure these assets, benefiting us all, do not become increasingly threatened by fire, drought and development.

"We are confronting more large fires, a tripling of homes burned and more frequent large evacuations in North America," said Tania Schoennagel, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. "This trend will continue in response to further (global) warming."

Is this the new reality or are there remedies? Considering that an overwhelming majority of all wildfires are human caused, it is reasonable to expect that through behavior modification, there can be some reduction in the amount of wildfires through education, and if need be, punishment through legal means.

Thanks to our State Representative Millie Hammer's efforts, those failing to fully extinguish a campfire will now pay a fine up to $750 and six months in jail for their actions.

Additionally, there are educational efforts being done by Friends of the Dillon Ranger District's magnificent ranger patrol program, which greets, engages and provides education for locals and guests enjoying our public lands. This goes a long way toward behavior modification as often, people simply do not know to hike on the designated trail, or why they should camp at least 100 feet away from water sources, how to have a responsible campfire, and other forms of public land etiquette.

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This important work will become even more necessary as wildfire seasons become longer and more severe. Bigger and more bold steps can and need to be taken by all stakeholders in our land.

We can lead by example for our guests and encourage them that together we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions that are in part to blame for the unhealthy future we are facing as changing climate affects our public land and our health.

This fight for our forests can begin by inviting forest visitors to become more aware of their actions en route to, and while on, public lands — when they book a hotel or resort stay, visit a retailer in one of our towns, or while out on the trail. Instilling a sense of responsibility and ownership can empower Summit County's visitors to become better stewards of our network of public lands.

Encourage our guests prior to arriving to take a shuttle or Bustang to the High Country where the free Summit Stage awaits. Additionally, encourage carpooling through a robust rewards system for our Front Range guests. These alone can help as transportation is the leading greenhouse-gas-emitting sector that contributes to our untenable state of forest and public land destruction.

With 4.4 million visitors annually to the Dillon Ranger District and arguably half those arriving in the coming months, I would like to call on Summit to make this the winter of public land health awareness and action.

Tom Koehler is a sustainability advocate who lives in Summit County.

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