Seeds of Stewardship Ponders Public Lands

On February 17, After School on the AZT spent a brisk afternoon hiking at Rocky Ridge, learning proper muddy trail etiquette, and diving into the fascinating topic of public lands.

With the recent snowmelt, we were very intentional about where we chose to hold this outing. Because, in Flagstaff, wet trails mean muddy trails, and traveling on muddy trails can seriously damage the tread. The Rocky Ridge Trail lies on the south side of the Dry Lake Hills, passing through a burn area with open stands of ponderosa pine; the southern aspect combined with patches of relatively open forest helps the trail get more sun and dry out faster than some other places around Flagstaff.

Still, some muddy sections weren’t quite dried up, so we made sure to chat with the group about what to do when we meet a saturated trail. What if the whole trail is consistently muddy? Wait until it’s dry to go on it! Image if we didn’t; the trail would have footprints and divots cemented into it—which is not fun for any trail users to travel on. What if there’s just a small section of mud? Find more stable surfaces to walk on! When we met mud, we played mud is lava, hopping between snow, rocks, logs, and dry spots.

After some enjoyable hiking, a snack break, and one of our favorite games (called Yeehaw!) we facilitated a lesson on public lands. Participants reflected on their views of public lands, learned the formal definition of public lands, got a glimpse into three land management agencies, and problem-solved scenarios where different management interests conflicted.

First, we brainstormed. Everyone was asked to write down and/or draw what they think of when they hear the words “public lands.” After a couple minutes, we shared our thoughts, which included images of trees and agency buildings, words about recreation and nature, and more. We defined public lands (as areas of land that today are owned collectively by U.S. citizens and managed by government agencies) and explained some of the major differences between the Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

After scratching the surface of Public Lands 101, participants were asked to solve conflicts described in case studies, giving them some insight into how different people view public lands and want to see them managed. Coming up with solutions sure was complex, but it also sure was fascinating to learn about!

While learning about this topic, it’s important that we always acknowledge that many of the lands today considered “public lands” were stolen from Indigenous Peoples. Before they were considered to be collectively owned by U.S. citizens, these places were often ancestral homelands, migration routes, ceremonial grounds, and hunting and harvesting places for Indigenous Peoples who were forcibly removed. We acknowledge that every foot of the Arizona National Scenic Trail is on the ancestral lands of Indigenous people, and are grateful for the opportunity to be stewards of the trail that traverses and connects these lands.

At the conclusion of our outing, we were all left with some more thoughts to chew on. Given the infinite relationships to public lands and the varying designations and different land managers and unique agency goals aaaaand the complicated histories… this certainly was a big topic to ponder! As someone who didn’t know that public lands existed until I was in college—way later in life than I wish I had—I was happy to help the next generation of Arizona’s stewards foster a greater awareness about and appreciation for these special places.