Better Than You Found It

"How grateful I once was to arrive at a cabin on a cold, wet night and find a good stack of dry wood left behind by some thoughtful user who’d come before me." Cabin in the Gallatin National Forest. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

Recently, I was talking with an old friend of mine who loves to spend as much time as he can in big, wild country hiking, fishing and hunting. Like most of us, he is a person of modest means. That’s not an impediment to his fulfilling his desire for adventure, however, because he lives surrounded by the Gallatin National Forest in Montana. In addition to nearly limitless places to camp, the Gallatin offers the public the opportunity to rent 24 different Forest Service cabins, located in wonderful settings, for $20-$30 per night. Most cabins sleep between four and eight people. You do the math!

During our conversation, which was sprinkled with stories of grizzly bears, good trout streams, big bull elk and a cougar sighting, he reminded me of a phenomenon I’ve witnessed – and even participated in – but never gave much thought to until he mentioned it, in a tone invoking pride and even reverence.

“Forest Service cabins and fire lookouts are invariably clean as a whistle when you arrive to use them,” he said. “That’s really something, because no Forest Service staff is assigned to clean them on any kind of regular basis. Keeping the cabins clean is the responsibility of the last people who used them. In my experience, most people try and leave them even cleaner and in better shape than they were in when they arrived. There’s a kind of an unwritten rule among users: You leave them better than you found them.”

I know he’s right about this, because I have swept and mopped a cabin floor, even when it was already clean. I’ve left a spare can of coffee for the next visitors, repaired a broken hinge, and made sure the wood box is overflowing with kindling and dry wood, all the time remembering how grateful I once was to arrive at a cabin on a cold, wet night and find a good stack of dry wood left behind by some thoughtful user who’d come before me. These cabins and lookouts aren’t just somebody else’s property, you see; they belong to me and my family and to you and your family and to a great many other people and their families. Along with this ownership comes a sense of value and pride – and just as important, the realization that someday my grandchild or yours may want to use them. I have a vested interest in them and the forests where they’re located, and so do millions of others. They’re part of the legacy that I was left and that I hope to leave to future generations. Like almost all who use them, I want to leave them better than I found them in the hopes that the next user-owners will do the same.

I believe Teddy Roosevelt had just such thoughts in mind when he set aside our great public land’s estate, realizing that in a democracy their ownership … by the people … would be the safest and best way to assure their future and continued well-being.