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A million square miles of shared playground

NEAR TRUCKEE, Calif. — This will make me sound grouchy and misanthropic, but I sometimes wonder if what makes America great isn’t so much its people as its trees and mountains.

In contrast to many advanced countries, we have a vast and spectacul ar publicly owned wilderness, mostly free and available to all. In an age of inequality, our most awe-inspiring wild places have remained largely a public good to be shared by all, a bastion of equality.

My family and I have been backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail through the Sierras north of Donner Pass, enjoying magnificent splendor that no billionaire is allowed to fence off. We all have equal access, at no charge: If you can hold your own against mosquitoes and bears, the spot is yours for the night.

Yet these public lands are at risk today. More on that in a moment, but first let me tell you about the Kristofs’ grand vacation. As we do each summer, we ran away from home to the mountains. We escaped the tether of email and cellphones, the tyranny of the inbox, and fled with everything we needed on our backs.

We’re yanked back to a simple life. We sleep under the stars rather than in a tent; if it rains we pull out a tarp to keep dry. Dawn wakes us up, we roll up our sleeping bags and plastic ground sheet, wolf down trail mix or granola bars and start down the path. We stop for rest and meals wherever we fancy, chat as we walk, and when dusk comes we look for a flat spot, kick aside any rocks and branches and unroll our ground sheet and sleeping bags again.

Granted, we also moan about blisters. And marauding mosquitoes. And the heat — or, sometimes, the cold. We whine a lot, but that builds family solidarity.

This is also a spiritual experience: It’s a chance to share a reverence for the ethereal scenery of America’s wild places. The wilderness is nature’s cathedral, and it’s a thrill to worship here.

The march of civilization has been about distancing ourselves from the raw power of nature. At home, we move the thermostat up or down by a degree, and we absorb the idea that we are lords of the universe. On the trail, we are either sweating or freezing, and it always feels as if the path is mainly uphill. Nature mocks us, usefully reminding us who’s boss.

If your kids are suffering from what writer Richard Louv calls nature-deficit disorder, I recommend that you all run away from home together. Flee to the mountains. It’s heaven with blisters.

This is our collective patrimony, a tribute to the wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and other visionaries who preserved our wild places for the future. Thank God for them. Otherwise, these lands might have been carved up and sold off as ranches for the rich.

Because of the foresight of past generations, the federal government owns 1 million square miles, an area three times the size of California, Oregon and Washington combined. Much of this is unspoiled, our inheritance and our shared playground.

Yet today, President Donald Trump sees this heritage as an opportunity for development. The Trump administration lifted a moratorium on new coal mining leases on public land, it is drawing up plans to reduce wilderness protected as national monuments and it is rapidly opening up additional public lands to coal mining and oil and gas drilling.

A second challenge comes from our paralysis in the face of climate change, compounded by the Trump administration, and the risks this creates to our wilderness. A warmer climate has led to droughts and to the 20-year spread of the mountain pine beetle, and a result is the death of vast swaths of Western forests. Last year, 62 million trees died in California alone, the Forest Service says, and in Oregon and Washington I’ve watched forests turn brown and sickly.

The third risk is from gradual degradation and chronic underfunding. Even before Trump took office, wilderness trails and campgrounds were in embarrassing disrepair.

How is it that we could afford to construct these trails 80 years ago in the Great Depression but cannot manage even to maintain them today?

When public lands are lost — or mined in ways that scar the landscape — something has been lost forever on our watch. A public good has been privatized, and our descendants have been robbed.

To promote an understanding of what is being lost, I encourage everyone to run away from home as well. Flee to the mountains, deserts and babbling brooks to get in touch with wild spaces, to find perspective and humility. The wilderness nourishes our souls, if we let it.

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.

Tim Brinton/ NewsArt.com

Nicholas Kristof

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