Nurtured by public lands

By Walt Gasson

She came straight for us out of the glare of the early morning sun. A mousy dun colored mare, trailing a two-year-old bay colt behind her, she was high-stepping through the sagebrush, her head up and her ears erect. They had been working their way through the badlands country in the head of Bear Creek, on their way to water at the spring south of the Honeycombs. She wasn’t afraid of us, just curious like feral horses are sometimes. She worked her way downwind and caught our scent, stopped for a moment and loped away. The last I saw of her, she was silhouetted on a low ridge, looking like she just stepped out of our lives and into a Charlie Russell painting. 

There are moments like that out on the sagebrush sea, and I have been blessed to have had those moments my entire life.  My father had them before me, and his father and grandfather before him. We are a Wyoming family, at home out here in the big empty. It is the place we return to for our most memorable moments. It is the place we return to in our hearts when we are someplace else. It is our home place, the place that our memories live. It is the public land we love.

Over 130 years ago, tough old Fred Gasson got off the train in Green River with his little family and left Iowa behind forever. He took up a place on Big Sandy Creek, not 20 miles from where we stood watching the mare and her colt. His son and his daughter followed his trail on the range, herding the sheep and moving with the seasons like Bedouins on horseback. From Hobble Creek to Powder Rim, they knew the Green River country like the Shoshones before them. My dad learned it from them and taught it to me. And now, I teach it to the younger members of our family.

There were no public lands here when Fred came west. At least, no one thought of them as such. They were “the public domain”. The difference was more than semantic. The public domain belonged to everyone and to no one. Our own frontier mentality and outright greed drove this American commons nearly to its death. It was abused, overgrazed and exploited. I suspect our sheep may have had a role in this that remains a shame on us all. But it was rescued by those who saw a better future. And like many other American landscapes, it began to heal. It came under real management for the first time in its history, and that wise use gave birth to the legacy we all share. 

We started in the dark from our camp in Pacific Creek, through the buttes and into the vast Great Divide Basin stretching out to the east. We’d spotted a small group of elk at first light, a bull with a few cows and calves. We watched them through the spotting scope as they worked their way south, almost a mile from us. Every so often the bull would pause to bugle, a cloud of steam shrouding his head as he screamed out a challenge to the empty flats before them. We were trying to get in front of them to cut them off, but the country didn’t offer much to cover our approach and we were struggling to stay hidden. We were hugging the ground and straining to look like sagebrush when forty more elk stood up before us. They had us figured out in a heartbeat, and were instantly on the run.

Every group of elk has a leader, and they’re almost always the same. They’re old, slate blue colored cows with long noses and twenty winters behind them. They know every inch of the country and they’ve successfully eluded predators both two-legged and four-legged their entire lives. They’re never at ease, and they’re seldom caught napping. We were engaged in a battle of wits with a superior intellect, and we christened her Mavis. She took her place at the front of the bunch and lead out with her head back, trotting off toward the badlands country a couple of miles to the north. All we could do was watch them go. Experience keeps a hard school out here in the desert, and we’d just gotten an F from Mavis.

So off we went, following their trail. The mare and her colt had watched Mavis and the bunch go by, but they didn’t expect to see humans. They checked us out and moved off toward water. A pair of antelope watched us from a safe distance. Onward, ever onward, we tracked them and watched their trail as it stretched out ahead of us. For one hour, then two we walked as the morning sun climbed high and the wind picked up. There are no signs of human presence out here. No roads, nor power lines, no indication that the 21st century ever dawned, or the 20th century or the 19th for that matter. Time and space take on a new feeling out here. It’s just us and them, together.

We stopped for a brief rest and sent a lookout up onto the nearest butte to try to spot them. Eyes wide, he returned with the news that they were bedded on the other side of the ridge. Moving slow and stealthy, we eased around the bare clay breaks and clefts that separated us. No conversation now, only hand signals. “You’re the best shot. Stay here and we’ll come around the other way. If they bolt, they’ll probably come right by you.” Heads nodding, we exchange a thumbs up sign and unspoken prayer for success. It wasn’t long in coming.

Later, I cradled her head in my hands as the bunch moves slowly off to the south and the boys begin the hike back to join me. I feel the old familiar sadness at taking a life so precious, but am comforted by the thought that she will feed our family this winter as others of her clan have before. Our family and these elk are connected across time and space in a way I will never completely understand, but for which I will be eternally grateful. God bless you, old elk. And may your family and ours remain ever connected out here on the land that has nourished us all together. Long may both our families live and be nourished by the public lands of our birth.

There are those who say that these lands should be transferred to the various states so that their management might be governed by those closest to them. It is a weak and a shabby lie. They could care less about their management, or about those of us whose hearts and homes are closest to the land. The states would be but a middle man, a temporary caretaker for these lands on their way to sale to the highest bidder. The ink on any transfer would still be wet when the first of these lands was auctioned off to well-funded interests and locked up forever. I can think of no greater American tragedy. This land, my legacy and yours, and the foundation for the elk and antelope and mule deer and trout (and yes, even the feral horses) that depend upon it is too precious to squander. May God protect it and us from such diabolical folly. 

Walt Gasson is the director of TU’s Endorsed Business Program. He lives in Laramie, Wyo.  

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