This monthly column, “Stewards of the Land,” has been around for more than 10 years. That’s 10 years of information about where to go on your public lands, what to look for and how to do it responsibly.
But what is a “steward of the land”? When you look up the definition of the word “steward,” the results are underwhelming. Most definitions are something to the effect of: “One who manages another’s property, finances or other affairs.” I don’t know any stewards of the land who think of themselves this way. So then I looked up “stewardship” and found this definition at dictionary.com: “The responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving.” Nailed it.
Yes, the stewards of the land I know are committed to the responsible overseeing and protection of our public lands because these special places are something considered worth caring for and preserving. Most of these stewards glean no financial benefit from this, but they rake in myriad other benefits, some that are often unseen by others.
When I think of the stewards of the land I know, they are all ages. I have had a 5-year-old tell me how litter can harm wildlife. And I have had a wrinkled and gray-haired woman teach me the deep-down importance of true wilderness for the human soul.
If anyone is to be successful at a skill, they need to start as young as possible. Look at the local 3-year-olds who can ride a pedal bike and ski the green runs. These kids learned at such a young age that they don’t remember not knowing how to ski or ride a bike. It is ingrained in them. Kids need to understand the importance of caring for our natural treasures just as much as anyone else. And kids won’t necessarily do this on their own. We need to help them.
One of the programs I lead with San Juan Mountains Association is backpacking trips with teenagers. This year marks the seventh year. It’s one thing to go on a little hike on Saturday morning and then get lunch downtown; it’s quite another to carry everything on your back that you will need for three days, have nothing but mesh and nylon between you and a ferocious lightning storm and have to dig a 7-inch-deep hole and squat over it every time you need to go to the bathroom. In Terry Tempest Williams’ book, “Red,” she writes: “The landscape that makes you vulnerable also makes you strong.” We need strong stewards of the land more now than ever.
I was delighted recently to spend four days backpacking with teens from Iowa. Former SJMA employee Kent Rector came out with a group of six teens, ages 16 to 18, and treated them to a six-day trip in the South San Juan Wilderness. Rector did a fantastic job of preparing these teens. Thanks to a variety of grants, Rector was able to buy the necessary equipment and food for every one of them.
They had their packs weeks in advance and were able to practice packing their load and carrying it. He also taught them how to use all the equipment and provided them with Leave No Trace training. He connected them with Ros Wu, natural resource specialist for the San Juan National Forest, and they learned about what Wilderness with a capitol W means. There is not one acre of congressionally designated Wilderness in Iowa.
After months of preparation and anticipation, I met them at the trailhead, and they followed me enthusiastically into a cloud of mosquitoes and a landscape of wildflowers, aspens, mixed conifers and mountain views. The enthusiasm waned quickly. The day was hot and the trail was steep. Some group members had considerable trouble with the hike, but we were a team. The faster hikers were nothing but supportive. At one point, they eagerly jumped at the chance to help a struggling team member by taking a substantial amount of out of her pack and adding it to their already large burdens.
It was all worth it. We made camp at a picturesque lake below the Chalk Mountains. We named the lake “Salamander Lake” because of the profusion of tiger salamanders living there. We also marveled at the masses of 5-inch -long leaches, freshwater scuds and finicky fish that would swim within a foot of our fishing lures and then eat something else.
We frolicked through wildflowers and learned what we could eat and, more importantly, what would kill us with just one taste – bane berry! We wondered at arborglyphs (carvings made by historic sheep herders) dating back as far as 1934. Some books tell us that an aspen tree will live only 60 to 100 years. But others say 150 years is more accurate. We believe the latter. These massive trees sported drawings of birds, cows and a man in a sombrero as well as a variety of names and dates, many from the ’30s and ’40s.
On my last night with these young stewards of the land, I read to them “The Coyote Clan,” a chapter from “Red.” They soaked in the words about being vulnerable, being adaptable, the trickster coyote and the reminder that no one can ever truly own this landscape besides Mother Nature. And they smiled when I declared them members of the Coyote Clan. As Williams writes: “Members of the Clan are not easily identified, but there are clues. You can see it in their eyes. They are joyful and they are fierce. They can cry louder and laugh harder than anyone on the planet. And they have an enormous range.” And, if you ask me, they are also stewards of the land.
MK Gunn is the volunteer and education specialist for San Juan Mountains Association. She has dubbed herself a “steward of the land” for more than 10 years now, but her parents have always known her to be one. Reach out to her at MK@sjma.org.