In my recent Baltimore Sun column about Wolf Den Run State Park in western Maryland, I held back personal feelings about the state’s nascent plan for the place. The column represented the Sun’s first story of any kind about the new park, and it required a lot of reporting; facts took up most of my allotted space in print. Still, readers might have picked up on my objections to the state’s decision to open the 2,000-acre park to off-road vehicles, but my feelings about it are stronger than I let on. To be clear: I think it’s absurd for any government to support additional use of fossil fuel-burning vehicles on state lands and to turn an area recovering from decades of abuse — coal mining — into a place for motorized recreation. Maryland has plenty of parks, but relegating one to dirt bikes, ATVs and Jeeps means the rest of us — those who seek tranquility and the simple pleasures of natural settings — will have to take those desires elsewhere. We will miss out on what Wolf Den Run offers, including streams and waterfalls that most of us have never seen.
My recent look at Wolf Den Run took me into all considerations, including the main one from the state’s perspective: People who own an OHV (off-highway vehicle) deserve a place of their own; hikers, campers, birders and naturalists can go to more than 60 other parks and natural areas across the state. But I don’t buy this argument about user equity. I can’t get my head there. Must we accommodate everyone with a noisy toy? Isn’t the modern world already dominated by motor vehicles — cars and trucks, SUVs and motorcycles? Can’t we leave public lands as sanctuaries from all that? What’s wrong with a series of day-use trails for people on foot — the gentlest use of all? But the larger question: Why does Wolf Den Run need to be a state park in the first place? (I never got an answer to that fundamental question from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.) Why not just leave it alone? Why do humans have to use it in any way? Its three parcels are part of the great re-greening that has been taking place along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Isn’t that enough?
If that seems crazy-radical, I beg your indulgence. I am wrestling with existential questions about humans and the world around us, and a feeling that recurs and nags. It’s a hard feeling to describe. I have reached for metaphor but can’t find one, and that’s because it is unlike any feeling I can recall: When I’m in big, natural settings — forest and meadow, ocean and river — I experience some form of guilt about being there (and even about having burned gasoline to get there). I enjoy myself, to be sure, but there’s a feeling that gnaws at me. It’s because news about climate change cannot be compartmentalized; I can’t separate it from anything else I do. When I stand along a river or seashore, when I hike through a forest or meadow, I am pleased to see what’s there, and if there’s a trout swimming nearby, I usually enjoy trying to catch it. But I am less joyous about the whole thing because of the advance of climate change. I have started to feel bad about catching (and stressing) fish, to the point where I have pulled back on that activity. It’s because I carry the news about the longer-than-normal Arctic summer and the melting Greenland glaciers with me. To some, that sounds like doomsday thinking. (Who wants to fish with such a gloomy guy, right?) But it’s just a fact of life today, for anyone who follows climate news. People who predicted the end of times — often depicted in New Yorker cartoons as a bearded guy with an “End Is Near” sign — used to be considered fools, or at least social drips. Nowadays, it’s normal to share worries about the future world because they are well-founded. I don’t see how anyone with children or grandchildren, anyone who can imagine life beyond next year, can consider climate change anything but the most important issue facing us. And not just Americans. But everyone. It is a global challenge. I won’t even look in the general direction of a political or corporate leader who does not see it that way. We have been too slow to move on climate change, and I worry — as do growing numbers of scientists — that we are too late.
On the upside: There is a greater sense of urgency about it now. Young people, even conservatives, are pushing on the climate front, according to The New York Times. Even the fossil class — the climate-change deniers of the Republican Party — must admit to themselves, now and then, that the scientists are correct. But Americans, particularly, seem so caught up in their political tribalism, they refuse to give ground. Trump supporters, for instance, applaud his refusal to pull the U.S. into a leadership position on climate change. His Orwellian administration has tried to expunge the phrase from public documents. So I guess it’s all that: Constant news of climate change’s effects brought on by nearly two centuries of human abuse of the planet; the anti-science tribalism of the Trump-era know-nothings; the political polarization that seems to make slowing climate change impossible. And, of course, I bring my own personal considerations to it: My concerns for my adult children and what the future holds for them. That explains the feeling I get when I am out there, along a river or seashore, in a meadow or forest. It is guilt that we have not done enough to save this beautiful planet. It is a feeling of I-wish-I-could-do-more — more than just take photos and post them on Facebook or Instagram. More than recycle plastics. More than take public transportation whenever possible. More than bring my own shopping bags to the supermarket. We should all resolve to plant more trees, and only vote for candidates who see slowing climate change as a top priority. And what of Wolf Den Run State Park in Maryland? I’ve described my objections, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that regard. If you feel the same way — that this is the wrong use of state lands at a time when we should be focused on arresting climate change — write a letter to a legislator or state official, take some action, don’t feel helpless. That bumper sticker slogan from the 1970s still holds: Think Globally, Act Locally. That’s the best I can offer right now.