When Public Becomes Personal

138eda42-6a5a-460f-940d-da917d717722 By Chad Love

The forming of a political identity is an intensely personal thing. Some of us develop that ideology gradually, while others of us get poleaxed into our worldview by a single act or incident that quickly – and fundamentally – molds us into who we are.
My political awakening was the latter, and it broadsided me in the fall of 1995, behind the tail of a young pointer on the lonesome, windswept mixed-grass prairie of Black Kettle National Grasslands in far western Oklahoma.
The national grasslands of the southern plains constitute some 230,000 acres of reclaimed mixed and shortgrass prairie that were, up until the 1930s, individual homesteads; quarter and half-section dryland farms blown away and abandoned during the Dust Bowl years.
These abandoned farms, thousands of them, were subsequently repurchased by the federal government under the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, a Department of Interior program designed to return some of the most severely eroded land back to its native state.
In the decades since, the national grasslands, despite sometimes being mismanaged and made political, have turned into islands of reclaimed native prairie even as the plains surrounding them have been relentlessly converted into ag production. These grasslands also happen to offer some of the finest, and in some cases only public upland hunting opportunities in the region.
That’s what I was doing out on the grasslands in the fall of 1995. I was a poor, suburban, bird-crazy college kid from Norman, Oklahoma with exactly zero private-land opportunities to hunt quail (or deer, or ducks, or squirrels, or anything). I had heard about the national grasslands “out there” hugging tight to the western Oklahoma border, knew that some folks wanted to sell them off, but I had never visited them, didn’t know their story, and had no idea what to expect. But even back then, it was obvious to this landless, moneyless, connectionless kid that if I were going to be a bird hunter, I would be a public-land bird hunter or I wouldn’t be a bird hunter at all.
So I loaded up my young dog, drove west into the heart of the plains, and essentially never came back. I had found my place, out there in the middle of nowhere, on ground no one could kick me off of, ground that belonged to me every bit as much as it belonged to anyone else. It didn’t matter that I’d never laid eyes on this place or walked its hills. It was mine, in all its glory, free of “no trespassing” signs or posted warnings to keep out. 

It was, as they say, a transformational moment. Standing out there on the dusty vermillion hills of those grasslands, my grasslands, completed my political evolution from na├»ve kid into ardent public-land advocate and true believer in the notion that in our wild communal lands can be found the best of who we are as a people and as a nation – public space and public freedom, free for all to use, to love, and to enjoy.
In the ensuing years since that first trip “out west” I have chased birds and dogs and fish and dreams across dozens of states. I have experienced wonders and made memories untold. And the only way I have ever been able to do that, and continue to be able to do that, is thanks solely to the existence of our public lands. I truly have no idea who or what I would be today without that lifelong, utterly transformative access to public lands. But I damn sure wouldn’t be a bird hunter.

Yet thanks to those lands that were – in the beloved words of Woody Guthrie – made for you and me, here I am almost 25 years later, still the same public-land-loving, dirt-bagging bird bum who rarely has two nickels to rub together but owns some of the best bird-hunting spots in the nation. Just like you do.
There are only two types of Americans: those who already have cherished public-land experiences, and those who still have the opportunity to make them. Let’s make sure we’ll always have both.

Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more, join Quail Forever today