WHAT is the Public Lands Project?

Wallace Stegner said that “[n]ational parks are the best idea we ever had,” but without the concept of public lands, our National Parks system wouldn’t exist, and public lands are frequently at risk due to special interests and the prevailing political climate. However, public lands are a part of the American heritage that are truly democratic – they are open to all, and they do not care what gender, color, or ethnicity you are. They don’t differentiate or discriminate based on religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. The beauty they offer is equally available to each of us who makes the effort to see it.

In late February 2017, I’m headed to San Diego County to begin a 10,000+ mile circuit of the United States by way of back roads and a backpack to explore as many of our public lands as possible. More than 3,000 of these miles will be on foot, including thru-hikes of the Lone Star, Pinhoti, and Appalachian Trails.

I’ll be meeting up with locals along my route to discover some of their favorite trails and recreation spots, and non-governmental partner associations to learn about the special features of various sites and why they merit conservation.

Additionally, I’ll be investigating the land, water, and human rights issues that are or may become present on our public lands, and how those could impact the millions of people who live, work, and recreate on them each year.

Given the current unfavorable political climate toward our public lands and the environment, the time for this project is NOW, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do it.

I’ll be documenting this open-ended adventure here via video and blog entries. My hope is that this project gets more people out to enjoy our public lands and to advocate for their preservation. If you’ve got a spot I should check out, let me know!

Who ARE you?

Hi! My name is Michelle Markel. On trail, it’s SuperClassy. If you follow me long enough, you’ll think my trail name is ironic, but I do pack out wine when I can, and I almost always hike in a dress.

I’ve always loved the outdoors, but when I became an adult, I was rarely able to get off the couch, too exhausted from adulting. In 2012, I set for myself the goal of hiking at least 100 miles. Since then, I haven’t looked back, and although I stopped keeping track in 2014, I estimate that I have around 4,000 trail miles over countless days and nights, including thru-hikes of the Trans-Catalina, Tahoe Rim, and Pacific Crest Trails.

I volunteered as a Fire Lookout on the San Bernardino National Forest during the 2014 season, and since finishing the PCT in 2015 I’ve been a full-time adventurer, spending most of 2016 exploring Ecuador and Peru, including hiking the Quilotoa Loop and singing the blues in a Colombian band.

Needless to say, my time on our public lands has changed my life drastically, and for the better. I’m excited to share this new adventure with you, whether you are an armchair enthusiast, or are looking to get out on your own adventure. 

So…. Let’s get dirty!

WHY are you doing this?

The short answer: My time on public lands has unquestionably changed my life for the better. I’m stronger, more resourceful, more creative, and more capable, among other gains, as a result of thousands of trail miles and countless days and nights spent in the outdoors in just the last four years. I believe strongly in the importance of keeping our public lands open and available to any and all individuals who also wish to benefit from time spent there.

The long answer: Our new presidential administration and political majority party have quickly made it clear that they do not value public lands or the environment quite nearly as much nor in the same way as I and many others do. This is evidenced by just the first week of the new President’s tenure: social media accounts of our National Park Service (among other governmental agencies) being ordered frozen or limited, H.J.R 46 to roll back regulations on drilling in our National Parks, executive orders to fast-track the approval of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines, an Environmental Protection Agency cabinet nominee who is actually a party to ongoing litigation against said agency, the list goes on. All this in just one week. As a result, I have a great concern for the future of our public lands.

Last year, I was strongly moved to join the protest at Standing Rock and had determined to spend the winter there in opposition of the Dakota Access Pipeline. After calculating what it would cost to adequately gear myself and my van to remain there in an entirely self-sufficient manner, I concluded that even if I had had the funds to make the trip, that money would not be best spent in that way: to feed, clothe, and house one protestor for one season.

One of the best things about the movement at Standing Rock is that it finally drew much-needed media attention to a current land, water, and human rights issue, much of which is occurring on public lands. However, these issues exist all over the country, with little to no media attention or public knowledge about them. For example, Nestle drains millions of gallons of water from the long drought-stricken San Bernardino mountains, my home range, for less than $600 per year on a permit that has not been renewed since it expired in 1988. It then sells our own water back to us at around a buck a pop under the Arrowhead label. Meanwhile, area residents are subject to water use restrictions, and some mountain locals have been banned from drawing water from creeks adjacent to their homes, and forced to install tanks, wells, or import water for their own personal use. This is ridiculous.

Forests, mountains, deserts, lakes, and rivers don’t have voices or millions of dollars to pay lobbyists to advocate for their own survival. My hope is that by capturing and documenting some of the beauty, wonders, and opportunities that abound in our public lands, and spotlighting the broad diversity of people who already live, work, and recreate on them, more people will get outdoors and into our wild and natural spaces, or at least be moved to actively advocate for their preservation.

Thru-hiking is essentially a selfish venture. While undoubtedly I am a better person for it, this project is my attempt to give back in some small way – my love letter to the outdoor spaces that are open for all of us to enjoy.