A month-long commemoration peaks on Saturday, September 26. It’s a celebration that many people have never heard of—even those who fish, hunt, hike, camp, paddle, and bike in the great outdoors. September is Public Lands Month, and the 26th of the month is Public Lands Day, both held to boost Americans’ appreciation of their community, state, and federal public lands legacy, a birthright citizens of no other country possess in such abundance and access.
Most people are familiar with some of our federal public lands. World-famous places like Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park are icons of the American public land concept, which extends to preserve the natural splendor of more unique places engraved in America’s image of itself—the Great Smoky Mountains, Everglades, and Grand Canyon. These are among 419 sites, in all 50 states, managed by the National Park Service, including Fort Necessity National Battlefield and Friendship Hill, both in Fayette County and recognized more for their historical significance than for natural features. Both, though, offer appealing trails for hiking and nature study.
Less widely known, but larger in scope, is our system of national forests, managed by the U. S. Forest Service. Our nearest national forest is the 800,000-acre Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, extending into Preston County which borders Fayette on the south. Also nearby is the half-million-acre Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania and the Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio. National Forests are managed on the public’s behalf for multiple uses including timber production, watershed protection, and outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing. Unfortunately, many national forests in the far western mountains are now threatened by the wildfires burning across California, Oregon, and Washington.
A unique and relatively close federal tract in another category of lands is the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, about 90 minutes southeast in Tucker County, West Virginia. The Canaan Valley Refuge embraces about 16,000 acres of high-elevation Appalachian wetlands, an unusual natural community in this part of the country. Canaan Valley is one of 568 federal refuges across the country, each one open to outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing with some restrictions to protect sensitive areas. National Wildlife Refuges are managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, championed into existence by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.
The most important fact about all these natural treasures is that they are, in effect, the property of all Americans, regardless of wealth, gender, race, religion, or social status. In most cases, no fee is charged for their use and all are welcome to share their natural benefits—within rules designed to protect the natural assets that attract visitors.
States own public lands, too, and we are fortunate in our area to enjoy a diverse abundance of state-owned public lands. State lands offer the same equal access to everyone, regardless of wealth or privilege. All visitors to public lands are equally privileged in natural wealth.
Fayette County alone is graced by roughly 50,000 acres of Forbes State Forest; 21,000 acres of Ohiopyle State Park, parts of the 14,000-acre Laurel Ridge State Park, and approximately 25,000 acres of state game lands, concentrated in the mountain region but scattered throughout the county.
The importance of public lands was evident this summer with a sudden and intense demand for safe outdoor activities after months of confinement by the Covid pandemic. According to the Pennsylvania Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages both Ohiopyle State Park and the Forbes State forest, “During May, June, and July, the Pennsylvania state park system saw increases of more than a million visitors each month over the same periods last year, representing monthly visitation increases systemwide of as much as 36 percent, with some parks seeing 50 to 100 percent more visitors.
“Pennsylvania has 121 state parks that anyone can visit for the day regardless of their financial situation, and visitors should consider some new destinations to avoid crowds,” said DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said. “Get online and pick out a few options and remember that state forests also have less-traveled trails and primitive camping that provide good alternatives.”
A mostly quiet but emboldened political sentiment in America opposes the public land concept, in favor of privatizing natural treasures. But a rapidly-growing national organization called Backcounty Hunters & Anglers (BHA) has made the protection and future integrity of public lands its primary mission. To celebrate Public Lands Month and Public Lands Day, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers has organized a series of “Pack-Out” days to clean up trash on public lands around the country, including several public land tracts in Pennsylvania. You can learn more about Public Lands Day, and the importance of public lands in American life at www.backcountryhunters.org.
Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.