Don’t Be Fooled by the Silence

A rebuttal to Gallatin Wilderness: Don’t be Fooled by the Noise by Clint Nagel in the April 2019 issue of Bozeman Magazine

We all live here, many of us for the same reasons. We love the mountains and the lifestyle we enjoy within them. That much we have in common. However, these enjoyments can also divide us. Just as some drive pick-ups, others drive hatchbacks, and some own both! Everyone has an opinion, and in this modern culture, it seems we only hear ourselves shouting over those we don’t agree with. But to say that we are “scrambling for scraps of what is left of our public land” simply isn’t correct. We’re scrambling to protect our access and use of what is left to us of our public lands.

When it comes to giving voice to the resources and wildlife inhabiting our public lands, look no further than the user groups that rely on these resources and wildlife for their livelihoods and lifestyles. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is the “best intact ecosystem in the lower 48.” Why change something that is already the best? Because more people are moving here to enjoy that ecosystem? Becoming the best did not happen by chance; it happened both by design and by use, including historic use. Historic open access to the ecosystem by those whose livelihoods and lifestyles are supported by public lands. To call public land use “self-indulgence” (Clint Nagel) is not only incorrect, but ignorant in the sense of mis-understanding. The “self-indulgence” of many public land users comes with a price that users gladly pay to have access in pursuit of their livelihood and lifestyle.  Bridger Bowl is leased public land – how much “self-indulgence” do we enjoy by the affordable price to ski public land compared to the cost of skiing private slopes? Is this “self-indulgence” really so bad for the GYE? These “self-indulgent” activities help fund public lands. It creates new generations of sportsmen and women picking up the torch of those who built the “best intact ecosystem in the lower 48” because we appreciate what those before us built for us to enjoy!

I reached out to one of the most active multi-use groups on authoring this reply, because I am only a “self-indulging” working mom and public land user. I’m not on the forefront of the legislative issues and can’t always make time to attend every public meeting. I miss out on these discussions and the decisions that are made. Rep. Kerry White, HD 64 is the Executive Director of Citizens for Balanced Use, a multiple-use group that is on the front of protecting our access to our public lands. When I asked his opinion on the article from the April issue of Bozeman Magazine, he educated me on the history and current issues of the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area (HPBH WSA). When the HPBH WSA was designated in 1977, “the Forest Service was to recommend to Congress within 5 years as to whether the HPBH was to be designated as wilderness. The wilderness character study did not recommend the HPBH be designated as wilderness then, but congress never acted to release them from study. The HPBH WSA does not qualify for wilderness. According to the recent survey completed by the University of Montana, this study recorded low flights of commercial aircraft coming into Bozeman at a frequency of about 1 flight per hour, 24 hours a day. As the Bozeman airport has become the busiest airport in the state and still growing these flights will continue to grow in frequency. The flight pattern over the HPBH WSA is the main route for air traffic coming into Bozeman. I verified this fact with the airport manager. The low flying commercial flights are noisy and disrupt the requirement of solitude when wilderness areas are considered and designated by congress.”

The April article stated that “some of the same groups which supported [the exchange of private holdings to become public land within the WSA boundary] have aligned themselves with the Gallatin Forest Partnership (GFP) today, an organization asking for 53,000 acres less wilderness now.” So why have these groups changed their support and now opt for less wilderness? The author answered his own question with “does it have anything to do with a new focus to promote recreation as the new form of conservation? It is wrong to diminish wilderness in such simplistic terms. Recreation is the least important rationale for wilderness.” Here is where many “self-indulging” recreationalists will agree with his statement, but not his motives. Yes, the “recreation” that is allowed in wilderness areas is the least important rationale for wilderness. As Rep. White noted, 

“Wilderness [only offers] recreation only for the young and healthy. A new study* shows outdoor recreation and our public lands are good for the treatment of PTSD according to a new bill introduced in Congress. (HR7138) But without access to these lands for our injured vets which require something more than walking, how can we help them recover?”

The US House bill seeks to standardize outdoor recreation as a treatment for veteran PTSD a bill was introduced to the United States Congress that would allow veterans to participate in outdoor recreation on federal lands for medical treatment and post-traumatic stress disorder therapy. 

So why has recreation become “the new form of conservation”? That’s pretty easy to explain; just look at the recreational choices of the modern youth. How many hours are spent in front of a screen instead of in front of a horizon? If we want a future for our public lands, we must have a public that has an interest in them. It’s not just the disabled and the youth that will be restricted by more Wilderness. I’ve gone from exploring our public lands on horseback in my younger days, to motorized use as I have aged. The great part about motorized access is the ability for any age or physical condition to recreate and appreciate our public lands. Often, while on motorized use trails, I encounter groups of side by side (SxS) users. I’ll never forget two of these SxS users. One was with a group of older recreationalists and packed on the back of the SxS, along with a cooler and tools, was a walker. Yep, a walker, the kind you use when you can’t… well, WALK! This recreationalist was able to enjoy our public lands because of the historic motorized access that has been preserved. I was delighted to see someone who likely spent their entire youth roaming the mountains of Montana still exploring and enjoying the state we all love. In another group, the SxS had car seats strapped into the back seats with two young children grinning ear to ear on the way up, and sound asleep despite the bumpy ride on the way back down. How can anyone call recreational users of our public lands “self-indulging” when the entire point of public land is to allow the public to treasure, use and conserve that same land? 

To support the USFS closing off open and historic access to our public lands is self-indulgent in and of itself. Do we advocate to lock the doors of the public libraries to preserve the books inside? Of course not. So why are some advocating limiting access to the resource that is our public land? Maybe they want to be the self-indulgent users and have the entire wilderness for their own private sanctuary. I have been blessed with the ability to access countless miles of our public lands from foot to hoof to wheels. I am blessed to continue enjoying those horizons with my young children, who without motorized access could not have seen most of the horizons they have. My 7-year-old daughter is fascinated with wolves, and she wouldn’t have the opportunity to watch them in their natural habitat without motorized access. In a day where most kids only see animals on T.V., or at best in a cage at a zoo or the ever-diminishing circus act, it’s more imperative than ever to promote the use and access of the “best intact ecosystem in the lower 48”. These future community leaders will value what lies behind the increasing number of locked gates far more, if these gates are opened for them to see for themselves the ecosystems the locked gates supposedly protect. If you want to “ensure some corners of this earth will be forever free from the … trampled world,” perhaps you should start by not trampling those who love, appreciate, and protect our public lands.   

Julia Caruana is a passionate outdoorswoman who enjoys sharing the bounties of Montana with those who appreciate the beauty she offers. Photo Steve Bertone.