Feeling better about the abundance of public land

By Jayson Jacoby January 20, 2012 05:43 pm

I had of late been lamenting the “islands” of public land east of Baker City — those chunks of ground, some measuring in the hundreds of acres, that are surrounded by private property.

“Public,” as applied to these places, is a misleading adjective.

Because there is no general easement across the intervening private parcels, the public can’t get to these islands without trespassing.

This seems to me an awful waste.

(Except, perhaps, for the owners of the adjacent private property.)

There’s no good reason to leave in public ownership, and thus off the property tax rolls, land which is not accessible to the millions of people who are its ostensible owners.

It’s rather like building a home for yourself and then installing locks for which you have no keys.

I recently made a couple of forays into the country that includes these islands, though, and came away with a refreshed impression.

I didn’t change my mind, exactly.

I still abhor the existence of those public archipelagos.

But my disdain is offset, rather more than before, by an appreciation of just how sprawling the territory is that any of us can explore, whenever any of us wants to.

What happened, and not for the first time, is that I realized I had been led astray by a map.

(At least I didn’t get lost and have to spend the night out there, wondering if bootlaces are edible, and whether uncontrollable shivering is the second or third stage of hypothermia.)

I focused on a swath of public land, basically in the shape of a rectangle, that includes reaches of Pritchard and Lawrence creeks. This is several miles northwest of Durkee.

On the BLM map, which covers a few million acres and necessarily employs a constricted scale, this piece of ground looks pretty paltry, about the size of a pinkie finger.

(My pinkie finger, anyway. Your results may vary.)

Except the map is flat.

The land it represents, with a very few exceptions, is decidedly not.

All acres are not created equal, to put it another way.

A 1-acre, square-shaped, cultivated field, for instance, doesn’t impress. It’s only 208 feet on a side, shorter than a football field. You could stroll across it in less than a minute.

But take that acre, tilt it at a 45-degree angle, then sow it with sagebrush and scatter 20-foot-tall dorsal fins of limestone, and you have quite a different beast.

Take one awkward step on that acre and you’re apt to end up sprawled in the next acre over (or, rather, below), not exactly sure how you got there, and with an assortment of cuts and bruises besides.

Most of the acres in the Pritchard Creek country are like that.

This trait lends the area a sense of vastness that the two-dimensional map denies it.

You can spend the better part of a day traipsing around and then, just about when you think you’ve seen most of the ground, you come round a ridge and there’s another 300-foot-deep draw you never suspected was there.

I was out there on a recent Sunday, pretending to hunt chukars, when I had a feeling that was very nearly an epiphany.

I was climbing up the throat of a dry channel that’s tributary to Pritchard Creek.

This defile, which was deep enough to be fairly called a canyon, runs roughly northwest/southeast. Even at noon the sun, still low so near the solstice, can’t breach the ramparts of the intervening ridges. It was shady down there, and a trifle chilly although it was otherwise a fine day.

I followed a cattle trail that meandered through the sagebrush and scattered clumps of basin wild rye grass, taller than me. It occurred to me, and rather suddenly as I’ve implied, that although I had been walking for more than an hour and had covered a respectable distance, both in a linear and elevational sense, I had seen nothing that readily called to mind civilization.

No footprints, save those of cattle, deer and elk.

No roads.

At that particular moment the canyon veered in such a way that I couldn’t even see, on the eastern horizon, the outline of the firefinder’s station atop Lookout Mountain, the latter being by far the most imposing nearly landmark.

I hadn’t even come across a single expended shotgun shell, an artifact very nearly as ubiquitous, in certain places where the birds are thick, as Keystone Light cans are on the fringes of forest roads.

I realized right then that this canyon, which had set a gratifying ache in my thighs and put a sheen of sweat on my brow, was merely one among several, all of them wedged inside an area covering just a few of the orange squares on my map.

Each of those squares denotes one square-mile of public land. That’s 640 acres, a trifling thing on a map, merely the tip of that aforementioned pinkie.

Yet I understood, with a sense of pleasure that was almost giddy, that there’s an awful lot of those diminutive squares within 20 miles of Baker City.

And I knew too that, whenever I choose to have a look around, whether on a soft day in spring with the roads still in mud, or a dry January with the ground frozen hard as iron, I’m almost certain to have this wealth of sage and sky and naked stone all to my lonesome.

Against this joyful prospect, the matter of those islands, similarly endowed with topography but beyond the legal reach of my boots, seems less a tragedy than a bureaucratic annoyance.

.        .        .

I went out to clear the driveway the other day and before I could get to the job I had to hunt around a bit for the snow shovel.

This was a peculiar little search.

By mid-January of most winters I’m quite aware of where I last propped the shovel.

Too aware, really.

This winter, though, I’ve had about as much use for the tool as I have for, say, a D7 Cat.

(Although the dozer would be handy to have around in summer when I come across a particularly stubborn weed. I imagine there would be a certain satisfaction to go at a dandelion’s obstinate taproot with a steel blade capable of hacking through a rocky mountain slope. Satisfying, at least, until I realized I had disemboweled half my yard just to pluck a single invader.)

So anyway I waded out into the rapidly softening snow and started digging. In certain circumstances I rather enjoy shoveling snow. This wasn’t one of those. The snow was both heavy and sticky. I’d hoist the shovel and give a mighty, vertebrae-annoying heave, only to see most of the load hang on, like an alpinist clinging to a cliff.

Turns out I needn’t have bothered.

By the next morning — Thursday, this was — a chinook had blown in and done for most of the snow.

I’ve got a bead on that shovel, at least.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.