For the past 14 months, Pete McBride and Kevin Fedarko have been hiking through the Grand Canyon’s rugged terrain with few trails. The two National Geographic journalists recently completed an 800-mile trek on foot. They wanted to understand this most iconic of national parks — and the development that threatens it from all directions.
They are now about to take off on a national speaking tour, but first, they stopped here, in McBride’s hometown, and spent a day talking with high schoolers. Fedarko said young people need to be aware that decisions being made now will determine what wild lands they will be able to explore later in life.
“I was born in 1965. The headgates to the Glen Canyon Dam were closed in 1963. Lake Powell had flooded Glen Canyon before I completed infancy,” he said. “I was never even given the chance to see Glen Canyon. And so something that I think I and many people regard as my birthright as an American citizen was taken away from me by people who made that decision in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Similar questions and decisions are being made right now in connection with the Grand Canyon.”
The Grand Canyon is the second most popular national park, with millions of visitors every year. As McBride and Fedarko discuss, it is also under pressure from several potential developments, including more housing, close to the park, a gondola deep in the canyon, uranium mining and helicopter tours.
McBride said it’s important for the public, and especially students, to understand how such activities would impact the canyon.
“Kevin and I left a track of footprints through Grand Canyon National Park,” he said. “And if all these development proposals can go forth and continue, these kids in here will never ever ever be able to repeat the same line of footprints through the same park; it’ll be a different place.”
It’s not just about this one national park. Public lands across America and the world are being taxed more than ever. Closer to home for these students, the U.S. Forest Service has rolled out plans to limit the number of people who can camp at the most popular spots in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, after years of overuse, accumulating trash and damage to fragile ecosystems.
“The whole point of our project is to use adventure to highlight a very iconic national park that is symbolic of wild lands across our entire country and beyond,” Mcbride said. “And if we can’t protect the Grand Canyon, what can we protect?”
McBride and Fedarko address this question through photos, storytelling, and a film that McBride is producing.They showcase a serious desert adventure, complete with stunning vistas, long days hiking where there is no trail and some run-ins with cacti.
They also examine the intangible, romantic lessons that come from long days exploring the wild land around the Grand Canyon.
“The most extraordinary, the most profound, the least understood, and the most vulnerable treasure the canyon contains is not visual. It is auditory,” Fedarko said. “It is the deep, and dense and crystalline level of silence that defines this space when you get far enough out into it that you cannot hear anything other than the blood running through the vessels inside of your own ears.”
That silence, Fedarko said, reveals both the fragility of America’s public lands and the bonds that develop among people in these wild places.
Perhaps most critical in learning the value of public lands, according to McBride, is spending time in them. Like these students, he grew up here and participated in the outdoor education programs offered in Aspen area schools.
“I think the wilderness areas around here — the mountains, the rivers, the lakes, the canyons — are the best classroom we have,” McBride said.
It’s in that classroom that these students might start to ponder what Fedarko said is the key question to determining the future of America’s public lands.
“You spend enough time in a place like this, and the land begins to ask you: How do you want to look at me? How do you want to regard me? What do you want to do with me?” he said.
Fedarko said he and McBride do not presume to answer that question, but it’s on the minds of the students as they run to their next classes.
One sophomore student said she’s thinking about “what the land means to different types of people. And exploring more.”
So she, too, can find a trail through America’s public lands, while they remain wild.