Laci Begaye: Improving public lands does not require heavy machinery

The Sept. 19 Salt Lake Tribune included a commentary from Redge Johnson, director of Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, in which he wrote about the ecological challenges our public lands in Utah face. As a conservation corps member, I belong to a community of young people across America who face those challenges and care for our changing public lands.

In 2019, I worked with the Southwest Conservation Corps as a first-generation indigenous student to fund my college degree by maintaining the integrity of our Four Corners wilderness. For that entire summer, I hiked with a crew of six young adults throughout Southwestern wild lands. We spent our time working on trails, picking up litter and clearing out forest areas that posed a danger to people or that were pervaded with invasive species.

Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office argues that using heavily mechanized management techniques are the right way to manage ailing natural landscapes. Yet we accomplished our work using hands-on, non-invasive management techniques.

During that year, the Southwestern Conservation Corps team maintained 22 miles of trails in national parks and improved over 650 acres of land in one summer. We improved trail systems and buffered the infrastructure from erosion by actively choosing to not involve unnecessary heavy machinery. Instead of investing in violent land management techniques such as chaining, SCC invested in employing local youth, young adults and veterans to aid in bolstering forest health.

Conservation Legacy, the organization that sponsors my regional conservation corps, oversees nine Conservation Corps programs across the country. It’s a model that the Utah Public Land Policy Coordinating Office should take note from.

Thousands of young people like me are immersed in excellent learning environments that apply to our academic and career goals. We provide self-sustaining practices in local woodlands and help our economy by working with farms, national forests and other conservation organizations. Our approach centers around the need to create a lasting impact for outdoor recreationists, land managers and wildlife alike to enjoy the natural world.

All that wild, public lands give us cannot be taken for granted. For decades, our ecosystems have been subject to the desecration of native biodiversity and the rapid spread of invasive species. While plant and animal health in our region hangs in the balance, public land has also been sacrificed to industrialized activity including mining, and fossil fuel extraction.

Now, for the excess of methane and carbon dioxide expelled in our airsheds as a result of extraction on public lands, the entire southwestern United States share the symptoms of climate crisis: drought, wildfires, reduced snowpack, erosion and forest disease. Young adults today and future generations are faced with the monumental task of maintaining what we have left of the natural earth. To keep it well, management techniques that involve heavy machinery belong in the past.

Utah’s Public Land Policy Office can address ecosystem wellness issues with minimally invasive techniques, such as the ones employed by Conservation Legacy on public lands. These methods don’t include large scale application of bulldozers, anchor chains or other heavy machinery that rely on fossil fuels, exacerbate soil erosion and harm wildlife as they ostensibly work to improve public land ecosystems.

Like the old saying goes, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” Any manner of land management that strengthens the next generation of land stewards to serve their communities, preserve public lands and value the ancestral integrity of the land is heading the right way.

Laci Begaye

Laci D. Begaye has stewarded Four Corners wildernesses as a Southwest Conservation Corps crew member. She is a first-generation honors student at Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado.