The importance of public lands


When I was four years old, I went over the fence.
My family had moved into a new subdivision in West Jacksonville, behind which there was a nine-acre remnant piece of longleaf pine flatwoods. It was much more interesting than my yard and the hog wire fence that separated it from the yard was easy to climb over.
I spent every day exploring those woods. There was a cypress dome to wade through and a low area full of pitcher plants and sundews. Later when my parents forced me to go to school, I would return home, head across the backyard, and climb over that fence to continue my education.
There was much to learn.
Carnivorous plants fascinated me and I found that I could use a pocket knife to slit open old pitcher plant tubes and examine the remains of the insects that had been trapped inside.
Using a field guide from the library, I managed to identify my first bird, a Rufous-sided Towhee. In time, I outgrew my little woods and graduated to a larger patch of woods within biking distance of my house.
That nine-acre patch of longleaf pine flatwoods behind my house was nothing special. Longleaf pines once covered 90-million acres of the coastal plain in the Southeast, including most of the state of Florida. However, those woods across the fence were an important part of my life. They were like a starter drug for me, leading to a lifelong fascination with the natural world.
When I was growing up it was much more common to have undeveloped plots of land adjacent to housing areas. They acted as accidental parks.
Today, the world is more urbanized and 83% of the U.S. population now live in either urban or suburban areas.
The woods beyond my fence that I explored as a child are now mostly a strip development. The larger patch of woods that I had graduated to is covered by 40-acres of pavement where you can buy any of several makes of cars.
Nowadays, taking a walk in the woods is not as simple as jumping over a fence. We rely on public lands: national wildlife refuges, state forests and local parks. They belong to us as part of our birthright as American citizens.
The fourth Saturday of every September is celebrated annually as National Public Lands Day.
This year it falls on the Autumnal Equinox, Sept. 23rd. Admission to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge will be free. The Lighthouse Keepers Quarters will be open, as will the Nature Store at the Visitor Center.
St. Marks is your National Wildlife Refuge.
Come down on the first day of Fall and celebrate National Public Lands Day on your very own refuge.
There’s no fence. You can drive right in.

Don Morrow can be reached at