Public Access is Important

Personal Writings

            Pearl River      I was sold on the camp after I walked to the edge of the acres past the house and stepped onto the peer, traversing the marsh for 75 feet until reaching the wooden dock on the bayou.  The property’s acreage was on both sides of the bayou, with even more marsh to the west until rising to dry land at the back of an unseen neighbor’s property across the way.  To walk out from the pines and oak trees to the marsh’s edge and look at the expanse of reeds, sawgrass, and scrub trees opening wide to the horizon in all directions under the immensity of the clouds is a gift in itself.

The bayou though is the centerpiece of this landscape.  The Pearl River marks the boundary between Louisiana and Mississippi.  We’re hardly forty minutes from New Orleans, but we’re a mile as the ducks fly from the Pearl River boundary that divides the states.  A bayou is classified as a river in Mississippi, and ours runs to the north until it peters out and carves out a winding course to the Mississippi Sound of the Gulf of Mexico to the south.   Wind, tides, and storms can pull the water over the bottom landing that steps down from the dock, or it can leave the bayou so low that it is impossible to step into the canoe.  Jumping into a canoe is a fool’s errand from a dock, almost guaranteeing a chance to splash around with the alligators.

Though we pay the bank for the land on both sides of the bayou, there’s no way to pretend that we own any piece of the flowing water.  There are less than a handful of times that I have not paddled a canoe on this bayou for everyday I’ve been at the camp, because of low water or storms.  At this point I may know every crook and turn more than anyone else ever.  The ducks, egrets, herons, and kingfishers on the route know me as well as I know them.  Nonetheless, this is not my bayou.  Although we see a few fishing boats, they have the same access I enjoy.  I mess with some of the alligator traps on my stretch of the bayou, because they are illegal, but respect the others trying to make a living on this bayou from time to time or enjoying the water like I do.

Public access is important, even if few are taking advantage of this bayou.  I was struck by a problem in Colorado where several of the over 50 peaks topping 14,000 feet are on private property.  Hiking trails had been allowed by the owners, but court rulings in a Colorado Springs area trail where the Air Force was found liable for an accident and had to pay millions, have now closed access to the public for fear of similar lawsuits and liabilities.  Trial lawyers blocked legislative modifications, because they still want to be able to sue when there’s negligence.  The owners aren’t millionaires, and correctly cite the fact that anything can happen on the trail, from rusty nails to old mining sinkholes.  The owners’ insurance almost doubled.

This is a problem without an easy solution.  We fenced the acres around the camp and put gates up.  There are no trespassing signs on the dock.  As development increases along with population, public access is going to be more vital to land and water.  Wild always includes risk.  Experience, preparation, and prudence provides safety, but that’s different than guarantees.  Supporting the National Park Association, I read constantly about how many areas are now inaccessible, because of lack of maintenance and in some cases where even the federal government can’t handle the liabilities.  Meanwhile, there are forces in the West trying to prevent the increase and protections of public lands in order to privatize them for their own interests.  This is even a problem in urban areas where developers scheme to get easements in exchange for offering public amenities and then block the public access.  Out of sight can’t mean out of mind.  Public access has to be protected and increased, and politicians need to figure it out, regardless of the problems raised by special interests and private enterprises and insurance companies.