Chinese Wall from Haystack Mouintain

Chinese Wall from Haystack Mouintain

 

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about wilderness and wild country. First, of course, I spend far too much time just daydreaming idly about the wilderness adventures I have been fortunate enough to experience in my time. And, when I’m not dwelling on the past, I get involved in scheming and planning future trips to favorite haunts or places I have always wanted to visit and haven’t gotten around to yet. With the years winding down now for me, I know there’s not much time to waste in marking those trips off my bucket list.

 

Many of my most wonderful memories are of the days I have spent with friends and loved ones in wild places around Montana and the west. My first tastes of such places came at a time when there was not yet a Wilderness Act or even a wilderness movement that I was particularly aware of. But from an early age I was aware that there was adventure, magic, and wonder waiting out there where the roads ended and the trails into mountains began. Many of those places have since become designated wilderness, some have not, but very clearly should be, and too many other places, once wild and beautiful, have fallen to the always-reaching tentacles of civilization. The places that remain wild keep calling me back.

August Night on Scapegoat Peak

August Night on Scapegoat Peak

 

Besides dreaming of, remembering, and finding new adventure in wild country, I also spend a good bit of time thinking about, reading about, and talking with friends about just what wilderness is, what it means for a place to be “wild”, and why that seems to be so important to us. Then there is the business of thinking, talking about, and strategizing to assure that more and more of it is protected. By now, several generations of wilderness enthusiasts here in Montana have spent much of their lives engaged in exactly those efforts.

 

So it should follow that I and my many friends of like mind, and the many, many Montanans who have been the foot soldiers and the grass roots movers and shakers for wilderness here should have been universally pleased by the long overdue Congressional approval of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act (RMFHA) and the North Fork Watershed Protection Act (NFWPA) as 2014 drew to a close.

 

I can only speak for myself, officially anyway, and I have to admit today that I am not easy with how the whole deal played out. Yes, of course I am glad that the Front and the North Fork are now much better protected. And I really do honor the work that so many put in over so many years to realize the dream of protecting those wonderful landscapes. But, for me, the cost of protection this time seems to have been way too high. We should not have to mortgage the future for our children and grandchildren to protect something in nature that is already worthy of absolute protection on its own merits with no strings attached.

 

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act was a model of collaboration and compromise, providing something for all the stakeholders while also protecting the principal economic asset for every community along the Front and a great recreational asset and tourist attraction for the entire State of Montana. Besides its tremendous and unquestionable wilderness values being protected, it seemed like everybody won on this deal. And that was before the last-second backroom machinations.

 

For those who truly believe, as Thoreau suggested, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” the RMFHA could only be faulted for not going far enough in providing protection for all the acreage that might qualify as wilderness under the letter of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Under this bill, a comparatively small area of 67,112 acres was added to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness, while an additional 208,000 acres was designated a conservation management area allowing for more flexible management and the continuation of some traditional uses not compatible with designated wilderness. Most conservationists and wilderness advocates I know supported the bill, though some wished for more protection.

 

The same goes fore the North Fork Watershed Protection Act. This legislation seems to have been hanging out there becalmed in the Horse Latitudes of lawmaking for years, waiting for something to come along to push it out of the doldrums and over the finish line. Like the RMFHA, the NFWPA (sorry about that) seems to be something of a no-brainer politically. The health of the North Fork of the Flathead River, its impossibly clear waters and near pristine water quality, the rich wildlife habitat it provides, the recreational opportunities, the integrity of Glacier National Park, and its spectacular beauty are nothing short of essential for the economic stability and prosperity of the entire Flathead Valley. So,”Duh,“ is all I can say when it comes to the logic of supporting the effort to protect it.

 

Instead of legislative horse-trading to secure the passage of these bills, this should have been a perfect example of our Congressional delegation dusting off the long-forgotten art of reaching across the aisle to join hands in accomplishing something that was clearly in everyone’s interest.

 

Now, I have no idea if the organizations or the individuals who worked so hard for so long to get these bills passed knew what was finally included in the rider to the defense appropriations bill where all of this was tucked away. But, I can’t help thinking that there would have been more than a few second thoughts had they known that wilderness study areas in eastern Montana were sacrificed, or that the possibility of much greater coal development on public land in the Bull Mountains had been encouraged and facilitated by the deal.

 

That’s because most of the people I know who believe in the importance of protecting wild country and natural systems also know that encouraging fossil fuel development flies right smack in the face of those efforts. To my way of thinking, mindlessly encouraging coal development isn’t much different from knowingly dumping toxic waste into a healthy river.

 

So often, we hear politicians and economic boosters suggesting that we always need to have a “balance” between environmental protection and economic development. I know that Senator Daines has characterized this legislation as just such a nice balance. But, if you have been paying attention to Montana history, or human history for that matter, you are probably aware that the balance between environmental protection and economic development has been out of whack since the beginning.

 

Now, even as clean water, essential for life and for economic activity as well, is becoming more and more precious and rare every day, and clean, healthy air is similarly becoming the exception rather than the rule, we continue to fall for the old “balance” argument. All one needs to do is think about the legacy of mining in Montana and the unending and extraordinarily expensive job we face of cleaning it up. Future generations are always saddled with the consequences. The legacy of coal development in Montana, by the way, has yet to be fully assessed. Despite vaunted claims about reclamation successes, I don’t think I have ever heard about a mining company that has asked to have its reclamation bond back, signifying completion of reclamation. But I do know enough about climate change to know that coal has to go sooner than later, and I have heard about polluted ground water in the wake of coal mining with desperate ramifications for residential uses and traditional agriculture as well. We don’t hear about it much these days over here in the western part of the state because it happens in eastern Montana where urban legend has it that nobody lives, or wants to, either. Truth is, some of the wildest and most beautiful country in our state lies out there in the empty part, where the Tongue and Powder Rivers bring life to the thirsty land, but not the sex appeal of the Rocky Mountain Front or the North Fork of the Flathead River.

 

For folks who think like me, wildness is indeed the preservation of the world, as Thoreau suggested, not just because of its beauty and the awe it inspires, nor because of the recreational opportunities it affords, or the spiritual nature of those experiences. It’s because we depend on wild country as the source of clean water, as reservoirs of biologic diversity and natural systems functioning relatively free from the influences of our human activities. It is in those wild places that we are able see and learn about the ways all of this creation is connected and interdependent and how it works best when we humans are least intrusive.

 

Wilderness or wildness does not exist in a vacuum. It does not stand alone and retain any lasting value other than as an artifact of some bygone time. The fabric of our landscape here in Montana and all over the world is a mosaic of the built landscape and the steadily disappearing but still interconnected and relatively untrammelled natural world. In the final analysis, it is that natural world that sustains us here on this planet. Taking care of wilderness is part of the responsibility we share in taking care of this planet and each other. It’s about keeping and being good stewards of all the parts that make this planet livable.

On Scapegoat Peak Above Half Moon Park

On Scapegoat Peak Above Half Moon Park

 

I really do believe this, even though most people in the world never get to experience and know wilderness in a first-hand sort of way. To many people, I’m sure wilderness is an abstract idea and little more. Yet, I think that in some way, all human lives are sustained and enriched by what wilderness or wild country provides. And I believe I could convince almost anyone of this with a few short hours atop the Continental Divide at a place like Haystack Mountain at the south end of the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or perhaps from the summit of Scapegoat Peak where the Big Blackfoot, Dearborn, the South Fork of the Sun, and the South Fork of the Flathead Rivers all begin in the melting snows. Making it a priority to protect what is left of that natural wild world first and foremost, for the good of all mankind, makes perfect sense to me. Trading wilderness protection for coal development does not.

 

Wilderness is not an amenity. It is not a luxury. Wilderness is essential to our very existence.