Westerners need to stand up for public lands

 

As Google Earth flies, it’s five miles and change from the Echo Lake Café in the Flathead Valley, one of Montana’s great little restaurants, up to a parking area at a trailhead that leads to Jewel Basin. Down here in the valley, we’re at 3,000 feet. Up where the gravel road dead-ends, you’re looking at 5,700 feet.  If you make it all the way to the top of 7,500-foot-high Mount Aeneas, you’ll be rubbing elbows with some top-of-the-world views, not to mention mule deer and mountain goats.

We’re talking about almost a mile of elevation change, yet the amazing thing is that once you leave the valley floor, all that land stretching on seemingly forever belongs to you and me and all of our fellow Americans.  It doesn’t matter whether you live here in Montana, or in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico or New Jersey. All that acreage, which is administered on our behalf by the U.S. Forest Service, is ours.  We can roam where we choose, we can hike, we can fish the lakes and pick fresh huckleberries for lunch and pitch our tents under all that Big Sky. We’re free to wander to our heart’s content on public land, and for a lot of Americans, that’s an incredible thing.

Whether you actually visit these places in person –– go hiking in Jewel Basin or hunt in western Montana’s backcountry –– is almost beside the point. You still own those places, and you benefit from them, either directly or indirectly, because of all the clean air, clean water and wildlife, not to mention the billions of dollars, that our federal lands inject, year in and year out, into our economy. That’s a pretty incredible dividend, paid on the principal, or make that the principle, of our public lands. 

I’d go so far as to say that here in Montana and across the West, our public lands, which make up 50 percent or more of our states, equate to freedom. Let’s make that freedom and prosperity, because almost everything of substance, from our Western heritage to our economy to our recreation, flows from the bounty of our public lands.  

That is why it’s so disappointing that 51 U.S. senators, every single one of them entrusted with our nation’s well-being, recently cast a vote that could help destroy the West -- one that could turn over America’s public lands to multinational corporations, lock out hunters and hikers, and shift control of our timber, our grazing rights, and our minerals, along with the very lifeblood of the West -- our water -- to profiteers and foreign interests.  

That’s right. In an almost entirely party-line vote, 51 U.S. senators just voted in favor of Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s budget amendment to sell off our public lands, with only three Republicans voting no. Colorado’s Cory Gardner was the lone Western Republican to vote no, joining all of the Western Democrats. 

The senators won’t tell you what transferring these lands out of federal management really means. No, they’ll stand in front of their microphones, puffed up and proud, and state that they’re for smaller government and state’s rights and local control.  But once you make your way through the obligatory smoke and mirrors, you come to the truth: This is about power, plunder and money.  It’s about water, which is the source of all that power here in the West. And it’s about the fact that an awful lot of folks back in Washington want to privatize our federal lands.  

Montana writer Hal Herring called the vote “an attempt to re-create our country, to vanquish forever the notion that we citizens can hold anything in common. It’s a new paradigm, where the majority of Americans are landless subjects with little recourse in the courts or political process." 

Now we have an important decision to make. Do we turn our back on this grand experiment in democracy? Do we accept that the future will always be smaller and shabbier than the past? Do we resign ourselves to a world where our freedoms are locked away behind “No Trespassing” and “Keep Out” signs? Or will we choose to fight for what’s ours?  

Because that’s the real question. Will we give up? Or will we as Western citizens stand up and defend the America that was passed down from our forefathers?   It brings to mind a question that Elizabeth Willing Powel asked Benjamin Franklin following the Constitutional Convention in 1787. “Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” 

Franklin’s response still rings true today: “A republic, if you can keep it.” 

Todd Tanner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives in Big Fork, Montana, and is an outdoor writer and the president of Conservation Hawks, a nonprofit that defends hunting and angling.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....