Hunting for Salvation: How Public Lands Saved My Life

The life-altering impact of America’s public lands

The sun had not yet risen when I parked my ’71 Land Cruiser just off a dirt road and began the first leg of what would become a healing adventure. I was 17, and freshly kicked out of high school for fighting — defending myself against a bully. At home, my mother’s longtime boyfriend had just walked out on us for another woman. I really wasn’t sure where to turn. Between the stress of my home life and the challenges at school, something had to give. What gave was my temper. I socked the bully in the eye.

A fight at school has never been okay, and this one earned me a trip to the principal’s office. The rigid, steel-framed chair across from 6-foot, square-shouldered, blocky-chinned, balding guy was not unfamiliar territory. I’d been there before. But regardless of my prior visits, I didn’t see myself as a troublemaker. I was a rights-fighter who lacked the maturity, skills, experience and space to solve problems properly. The principal decided on a weeklong suspension.

As luck, or maybe fate, would have it, I had already planned an elk hunt in the Blue Mountains of Washington that week. To me, the crime fit the punishment: Defend myself against a bully; go elk hunting. Seemed reasonable. Hunting with my dad, cousins and friends was likely what I needed at that time in my life anyway.

So instead of sitting at home pondering my actions, off I went, steering my crusty old green Cruiser 400 miles across the state to stalk elk in the national forest. As it turns out, that public lands hunt was the start of my adult education. It taught me more about myself and ways to handle stressful life challenges than a classroom ever could.

I graduated high school the following spring. That summer, I found myself off the grid, in the North Cascades, scrambling over boulders, camping on ridges, climbing rock chimneys, glissading down snow fields, eating clean food, and seeking salvation in public lands once again. Access to those open spaces meant more healing, more growing and more learning. It gave me a way to step away from the pressures of my life and discover a little more about myself.

I owe much of my sanity and whatever success I’ve had in life to the wisdom of folks like Roosevelt, Pinchot, Grinnell, Cleveland and others who created our nation’s public land tapestry. Today, after successful professional careers in science and public and tribal lands policy, I make my living as a full-time conservation and commercial outdoor photographer. I’ve traveled all over the world photographing people, places, animals and adventure. And without a doubt, none of my jobs has been more rewarding than focusing my camera lens on America’s public lands and those who appreciate them.

Over the past decade I’ve photographed many stories, a ton of wild creatures and many wonderful landscapes, but nothing gives me more pleasure and more gratification than when I can “shoot” on public lands. Whether it’s helping film the recently released “National Parks Adventure” IMAX movie, or spending months on the great prairies of Montana photographing and documenting public lands that have wilderness characteristics, my goal always has been to help bring the people, places, and our activities to life with my photography. I take particular pleasure in showing the world just how valuable a resource our public lands are.

When I’m not hunting for photos, I hunt for food. So it’s doubly important to me to treat the land, wildlife and people who enjoy them in a respectable way. Public lands sustain my soul and nourish my bones, providing tangible returns both personally and professionally, as they do for millions of other Americans.

public land hunting
Hunting with a camera. The Wilderness Society

From ranchers and cowboys tending to their herds, to hikers, hunters, boaters, anglers and folks like me learning to take on life’s challenges, this land — Our Wild — is there for everyone. It’s treated me pretty well through the years. In return, I’m committed to protecting our public lands heritage so that all people are able to receive their own nourishment from this unique American treasure.

The fact is, our nation’s legacy is my legacy. My family did not have private land or a mountain in Montana to escape to for hunts or hikes. We were common folk, like most of you, whose access to the wild, to freedom, was found in our nation’s public domain. My future undoubtedly would have been different if not for public lands.

Think about it: a regular guy, at an impressionable age, has a life-altering experience because of public lands. What if that access hadn’t been there? What if I hadn’t gone on that hunting trip? Would I have turned out differently? Probably. Would I have traveled the world with my camera? Probably not. Without those public lands, there would have been no elk hunting, no excuse to be outside when the school sent me home. No guarantee I’d even be around to tell this story.

I’m positive I’m not the only person in America who has been, or who will be, rescued by a visit to public lands. How do you measure that? What are public lands really worth? Individual appraisals will vary, but the simple truth remains: The public domain was created for all of us equally. We must protect it from those that would take it for their own short-term, self-interest.

The people who would consider selling off our public domain — and they are out there — put little stock in the fundamental health, safety and future of our great nation. The lessons learned from our public lands not only helped shape me, but are essential to our American values. They belong to all of us, our wild places, that helped make America the envy of the world. And we’re not about to let ourselves be bullied this time, either.

A lifelong outdoorsman, Tony Bynum is a world-renowned wilderness and wildlife photographer based in East Glacier, MT. He serves as the vice-president of the Professional Outdoor Media Association and his photos have been featured in dozens of magazines, websites and commercial campaigns across the globe. Join Tony in protecting America’s public lands by visiting Wilderness.org/ourwild and taking action.

Bowhunting eastern Montana elk in a wonderland of scoured knobs, gumbo buttes, and wide, wild coulees

The Breaks