Trekkers to Cross United States Entirely on Public Lands

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 1, 2002
An unprecedented historic adventure began Wednesday on the Canadian and
Mexican borders of the western United States: Two teams set out
simultaneously from each international boundary to cross the length of
the United States—entirely on public land.

American Frontiers: A Public Lands Journey celebrates a natural heritage unique in the world—but not well known among the U.S. citizens who own it and control its fate.

Beyond popular national parks such as Yosemite and Grand Canyon, lies an enormous tract of other U.S. public lands classified under dozens of designations. These areas are known as National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, National Recreation Areas, and many other titles. Together, they comprise approximately a third of the land in America.

This vast area is owned collectively by all Americans, and it's up to Americans as a nation to determine the future of the land.

Yet many Americans, particularly in the East where public lands are scarce, remain unaware of the extent of public lands and the special trust they have been afforded to control its fate.

That's why American Frontiers: A Public Lands Journey was conceived—as a way to showcase the beauty, accessibility, diversity, and diverse uses of our public lands.

The adventure is a cooperative effort spearheaded by the Public Lands Interpretive Association (PLIA), a non-profit organization that distributes information about public lands. Partners in the venture include the National Geographic Society and several U.S. agencies: the Department of the Interior, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

Every Step to Be on Public Land

The journey is an epic trek, being undertaken by two teams. Beginning simultaneously at America's northern and southern borders, in Montana and New Mexico respectively, the two groups will journey nearly 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) over the next two months.

Every inch of their journey will be on public lands, making the event the first recorded crossing of the United States from border to border without setting foot on privately owned property.

Along the way the trekkers will utilize all kinds of modes of travel, including hiking, horseback riding, backpacking, all-terrain vehicles, canoes, mountain bikes, motorboats, and dual sport motorcycles. The varied means of conveyance illustrate the many recreational opportunities available on the lands along the route.

The journey will conclude when the teams meet in Salt Lake City for a celebration of National Public Lands Day on September 28.

Lisa Madsen, executive director of the PLIA, explained that the concept for the trek began with an employee who had a special connection to public lands. "The idea started within our organization," she said, "with a person who came to the United States in 1956 as a refugee…he had a passion for public lands and he equated them with freedom. He was the one who conceived the idea that someone could walk from border to border without ever stepping on private property."

Now that dream will become a reality.

The team members, or trekkers, are a diverse lot. They are united, however, by a common commitment to public lands. The trekkers, who went through a volunteer application process to be selected for the adventure, include a New York City firefighter, two teachers who are part of National Geographic's Geography Alliance Network, outdoor enthusiasts, a reporter, a registered nurse, and a retired Marine.

Their exploits are being cheered by those responsible for managing the lands they will explore.

Highlighting "Vastness and Beauty" of Land

Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman were at the trek's launch event in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, even as the teams stood poised on the borders ready to begin their odyssey.

Norton pointed out that while many people are unaware of how large the nation's public land holdings are, "Through their journey, we hope to highlight the vastness and beauty of our public lands which exist in every state and cover one-third of our nation's surface." The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management alone oversees 264 million acres of land, predominantly in the West. The Bureau manages these lands for recreation and environmental stewardship but also for energy and mineral development, timber, and grazing interests. It's a tricky balancing act.

The varied uses of such lands are the subject of constant debate, as environmental, recreational, and industry interests battle over the way it should be utilized.

Ken Chapman, executive producer of American Frontiers: A Public Lands Journey, explained that the point of the trek is not to influence land use one way or another.

"Our only agenda is to educate, to get the story out about these lands and see them passed on to future generations. A more informed public will be able to make better decisions about how these lands should be used," he said.

Chapman and many of the journey's organizers and sponsors feel a particular sense of urgency about involving youth with public lands. "I've discovered that our children, because of television, video games, and all the other distractions we have in modern society, are losing their connection with the land," Chapman said. "If we don't take action to show them the value of these lands, the treasures we have, they will not support them when they become voters."

Educating a New Generation of Land Stewards

To fulfill the journey's educational mission, the trekkers will be reaching out to the communities and schools they encounter along the way, and passing on what they learn to all who follow the journey online at backyard and

Some 106 events and classroom discussions are scheduled along the route, during which these educators will both learn and teach.

Near Flagstaff, Arizona, for example, the team will be learning about fires and fire management—a crucial issue recently underscored by this year's devastating Western fire season. The lessons they learn will be passed on to students across America via web dispatches and real-time online learning programs.

National Geographic has designed its 2002 Geography Action! curriculum around America's public lands. The program's Web site, entitled America's Backyard, tracks the trek via dispatches from the teachers, while providing depth with lesson plans, action programs, photography, and games.

Catherine Kiffe, a teacher from Louisiana, is energized by the opportunity to excite students about public lands through her journey. "I've learned so much already," she said with the trek just underway, "and the point is lifetime learning."

Robert Carlo, a 38-year-old firefighter from New York City, also sees the trek as a way to share his passion and love for the outdoors with "as many people as the Internet will reach."

Carlo is an experienced outdoorsman who hopes to inspire all Americans to get out and enjoy their lands. "There are a lot of futures that can be changed for the better if they could only learn about our outdoors," he said.

He hopes people will see that the lands are for everyone, not just skilled adventurers, "They'll see a guy from New York City, who really doesn't have any experiences with horses, head out on an eight-day horse packing trip in the Bob Marshall wilderness. And he's going to get through it just fine."

Ken Chapman wants to send the same message. "Any American family can go out there and enjoy these lands," he said. "We own 650 million acres (2.6 million square kilometers) together; no other country in the world can boast that."

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