'Redneck liberal' defends a hard-to-love landscape

  "I want to see people enjoy this country the way it was meant to be enjoyed, the way God created it," says Tim Faber, speaking about Montana’s arid, rough-hewn Missouri River Breaks. "It’s a place like no other place in the world."

Faber grew up on a cattle ranch in the Bear’s Paw Mountains east of Big Sandy, Mont. He started exploring the Breaks in earnest when he was in high school. His family did outfitting on the side, and he helped out-of-state hunters find prize antelope, mule deer and white-tailed deer, chasing big bucks through this prairie and badland wilderness dotted with high, piney buttes. His dad knew an old homesteader down the river, and they’d often hike around the homestead.

"I just kind of fell in love with it after that," recalls Faber, a bachelor who makes his living as a carpenter and sometime ranch hand. To this day, Faber keeps a water jug and a daypack in his truck so he can bound into the badlands on short notice. Mostly he sets out alone, camera tucked away for telling moments. Though he prefers to stay behind the scenes, and doesn’t join conservation groups, he’s spent years going to meetings, hoping to convince decision-makers that the place is worthy of protection.

In early 2001, with Faber and others pushing in the background, President Bill Clinton created a 377,346-acre national monument in the Missouri River Breaks. Faber calls it "one of the best things Bill Clinton did" — a stance that at times draws strong rebuke in this rugged enclave of anti-federal leanings.

He cautions, however, that the monument designation "really doesn’t mean that much" unless it forces the Bureau of Land Management to change the way it manages the land. The agency has tentatively proposed closing only about 70 miles of the hundreds of miles of unauthorized two-tracks within the monument. If its forthcoming management plan doesn’t shut down more byways, the monument would remain crisscrossed with off-road vehicle trails.

"We’ve got too many armchair politicians who haven’t even been down there in the Breaks," Faber says. "They need to go. There’s a whole lot more people who want to see a good management plan, and to see some of these roads closed down, than these politicians ever dreamed of."

Another point of contention is the 81,000 acres of private land within the monument boundaries. Managers say they won’t incorporate this property unless ranchers sell it willingly. Nonetheless, Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., and others have fanned local fears of a government takeover (HCN, 10/27/03: Bill would redraw the boundaries of national monument).

To Faber’s disappointment, Clinton’s proclamation allows development of a dozen pre-existing oil and gas leases on the monument. Faber, who has worked as a roustabout on gas pipelines and compressor operations, says he’d rather see more sustainable forms of economic development in the Breaks, including nonmotorized outfitting for hikers, hunters and canoeists.

Next summer’s Lewis and Clark Bicentennial will bring a steady stream of new visitors, seeking places where the landscape remains largely the same as the one the explorers passed through. The prospect of increased tourism in the area troubles him, but Faber figures the public interest will help save what’s left.

"It will never be the same here as (it was) 25 years ago," he says. "People won’t have the same opportunities for solitude. They’re not going to have the same spiritual experiences that I have. But they’ll have their own."

The author writes from Helena, Montana.