Editor's Note: You have to love it to protect it

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5.22.12 My favorite section of the Rivanna Trail is a cul de sac. Bordered by razor wire on one side and a road on the other, it forms a looped pocket trail near the confluence of Meadow Creek and the Rivanna River.

A map of the Rivanna Trail with points of interest. By Aaron Shrewsbury

From a bluff, I can watch the water flow past, and sometimes it holds geese or ducks, a wading heron or a sunning turtle. Mostly I just watch the river and listen, ever-changing and unchangeable, as my dog sniffs around. If the razor wire ever came down, my cul de sac would turn into an artery, and it would not be my favorite place anymore. That’s the tension between preserving public land and providing access to it.

A wise man—a lawyer and former college president who smoked a pipe and made intricate reproductions of 18th century furniture—told me, upon learning that I had moved to the bank of a river in northern Wisconsin, “Rivers are better than lakes. Everyone thinks they can own a lake. No one thinks they own the river.”

I felt the truth of his words every time I overheard the musky fishermen’s conversations as they fizzed their lures toward the edge of a side channel not 40 feet from the porch where I took my morning coffee. But it took nothing away from my enjoyment of the otter den just upstream, which they would never see.

People who love nature and want to preserve access to public land understand they are dealing with a tricky balance, but they generally believe that in order for something to be protected, it must first be loved. A wealthy landowner will put 300 acres in trust for that love (and for a tax break), but the public will rally to preserve 10,000 acres of forest land only if they use it and know it.

The Rivanna River was our first highway. It is also beautiful and can only become more so if we turn our faces to it, as a community, instead of showing it our backs. Those of us who prefer secret, wild places also delight in the hunt for new ones.—Giles Morris 

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