Across the gravel road is a small plot of ground of which I am the “steward” — that is to say, the owner. The visionary sages of Douglas County who want to dictate how citizens should manage their land would probably refer to it as a “woodland,” a term that evokes frolicking nymphs, satyrs, Bacchus and Pan, foxglove bells and starry fays. In truth, it is a no-man’s land, a jungle filled with looping, wrist-thick vines that strangle the trees, which are mostly stunted trash trees anyway. I know… referring to any living thing as “trash” is insensitive, an unforgivable form of discrimination. And calling the land “mine” is no doubt a presumptuous kind of heresy.
I don’t care. As a ruthless, money-grubbing despoiler of Mother Earth, I planned to develop — rather, ravage — this sylvan grove. I envisioned high rise towers, fast-food franchises, an amusement park with giant slides and roller coasters and a NASCAR racetrack with seating for 100,000 screaming fans. Talk about noise pollution! You’d be able to hear the racket all the way to Lecompton. My neighbors could forget about seeing the stars at night. Search lights would sweep the sky, blotting out the heavens, guiding the entertainment-hungry masses to my door. I looked forward to hearing the wails of environmentalists and the sibilant tisks of armchair naturalists as I laughed all the way to the bank.
Such were my dreams. Then I read about another developer who’d just “clear-cut” his woodlands in brazen disregard of the county’s proposed new regulations limiting large scale tree removal. I had to smile at the conspicuous use of the expression “clear-cutting,” which suggests lumber barons denuding giant redwood forests. It sounded a little hyperbolic in the state of Kansas. And it set me to musing: A small, sturdy bridge over a ditch gives access to my parcel, which was once cultivated crop land. It might qualify as prime agricultural land, the kind some think should be protected from development in anticipation of the day when we run out of fossil fuels and have to return to subsistence farming. At such a time, would the country permit me to convert my “woodland” back to agricultural uses?
A photo of almost any spot in rural Douglas County taken 100 years ago would reveal few trees at all. Tallgrass prairie covered most of the land. A kind of war has been going between trees and grasses since the beginning of time. According to changing environmental conditions, sometimes grasses, sometimes trees get the upper hand. Conditions and farming practices have conspired to favor the trees these days. Which do the county sages root for – aggressive trees or underdog grasses?
The interests of wildlife were also evoked as an argument against “clear-cutting.” But my woods support virtually no wildlife in its present state. A woods can be as barren of birds and beasts as a field of fescue – or a parking lot. Left alone, thorny hedge trees can take over a pasture, rendering it inhospitable to wildlife as well as human beings. At any rate, the idea of primeval, virgin forests in Douglas County borders on silliness. Except for a few majestic cottonwoods, most of the trees in my woods are probably no more than 20 years old.
Of course, I don’t really intend to develop this patch. That was just my sophomoric idea of humor. It’s hard to get to my woods, and it’s in the flood plain. Besides, fears of overdevelopment in Lawrence and Douglas County are overblown. Anti-growth fanatics —inspired by a paradoxical mix of utopian and apocalyptic thinking — have done a magnificent job of protecting the county from the horrors of growth and prosperity. The path of decline awaits the self-righteous.
Footnote: By an uncanny coincidence, the day before news about the “clear-cutting” appeared, I had actually hired a man to clear the brush and box elders from my woods. My real scheme is to plant oaks with the hope of eventually producing acorns to feed deer, turkeys, squirrels and such. Will the day come when I must get permission from some county bureaucrat to do this sort of thing? Most of my neighbors are responsible “stewards.” Are the Olympian visionaries better qualified to manage their land?
— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.