Ecological Adventure on the Great Plains

Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland

By Ken Ilgunas 

He went for a walk and ended up 1900 miles from where he began a stronger, more hopeful person for the experience. It’s quite an astounding adventure, especially when you consider what a chore it is to get off the sofa for a snack.

If Ken Ilgunas had done nothing more than recount the rigors of his trek, he would have a tale to tell worthy of a reader’s time. But Ilgunas hiked with a purpose in mind: seeing that portion of North America before the Keystone XL wrought whatever damage and change it might. So, in addition to everything entailed in taking a half-year’s hike, Ilgunas educates readers on a variety of subjects, among the geological history of the region, the complexities of satisfying America’s energy needs, the environmental damage caused by tar sands excavation, the difficulty of sustained farming on the Plains (an issue that may be new to many), and a variety of other subjects.

Some of these will make you pause and think, none more than Ilgunas’ discussion of private property rights. Property rights are something we take for granted here without a thought to how they restrict our passage and bar people from experiencing the full wonder of nature in America. Yes, we have national parks, particularly in the East and West. But none in the Plains states. Everything there is held privately; thus Ilgunas’ need to trespass daily to traverse the Plains north to south. Not much of a loss, you might think, if you have never lived on or visited the Great Plains for any extended time. If you have, though, you know, as Ilgunas learned, they are anything but flat and featureless, but they are open, wide, wide open in a way Easterners and Westerners might find either boring or uncomfortable, or both.

As to the Keystone XL, the word most often heard by Ilgunas and by just about anybody with even a nodding acquaintance with the pipeline, is jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. This in the face of a reality that Keystone will produce only around thirty-five permanent jobs once completed. True, a few thousand people will be put to work for a short time building it, but after that, nada. Of course, states derive property tax and other revenue from the pipelines and landowners receive payments, as well. The question, however, is at what price to the environment and the potential for contamination of the great Ogallala Aquifer (already endangered by depletion), a very real concern given the proliferation of pipeline breaks and spills.

So, thanks, Ken Ilgunas, for a combination stirring adventure and an eye opener to the people of and the threat to the Great Plains. w/c


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