Forest bill will leave legacy for outfitters

The Missoulian

by Smoke Elser

The other day, as I watched the leaves whip through the forest near my home, I thought of an old friend. He and I used to visit the Bob Marshall Wilderness every hunting season. We would leave camp in the morning before first light. Once we got him close to an elk he would place it squarely in the rifle sights four or five times. Then he would lower the gun, clap his hands, and head back to camp happy as could be.

For him, the payoff wasn't a trophy or filling up the freezer. It was the journey of getting far from civilization and experiencing something my outfitting mentor, Tom Edwards, once termed, the hush of wilderness.

I know this hush well. For more than five decades I've packed guests and sportsmen into Montana's Bob Marshall country. Over the years, my old mules and I have taken in famous politicians, doctors, lawyers, blue-collar plumbers, electricians and the CEOs of major corporations.

It really didn't matter who my guests were or how much they were worth. The backcountry is the great equalizer. Once they smelled the vanilla of a ponderosa pine or traced the flattened whortleberry bushes outlining an elk bed, their lives were changed forever. The hush of wilderness gave them something to dream about until their death; they would often tell me it gave them a spirit that no one could ever take away or change.

I'm retired now, but many of Montana's outfitters are still carrying on this tradition. Their ability to continue guiding and interpreting the land depends on Montana's most important asset – big quiet unspoiled country. And right now, we have the best chance we've had in years to safeguard our outdoor heritage with Sen. Jon Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. His bill is a collaborative endeavor that puts people to work in Montana's forests and protects some of our most important backcountry fishing and hunting spots.

It's important to have a senator who understands that our backcountry areas are money in the bank for the outdoor industry, that these places have molded our identity as Montanans and they are crucial for our native fish and wildlife. All that unbroken secure habitat we have in Montana is the reason we have the longest hunting season in the country. These wild places keep our heads clear, our headwaters clean and our rivers full of fish. In fact, fishing in the backcountry can be so prolific that I used to tell my guests to bait their fishing line behind a tree. Otherwise, they might catch their limit before making the first cast.

I've ridden in many of the places that would be protected under Tester's leadership and they are quite a sight. Included in the legislation are the headwaters of some of the most famous rivers in the world. And for those counting down the days till the upcoming rifle season, his bill protects some of the best elk, sheep, bear, deer, moose and goat hunting in the state of Montana. Of particular importance to me is the inclusion of Monture Creek. That drainage has been my staging point for a lifetime of outfitting and I will be glad to see its legacy protected through the ages.

I've always said our backcountry wilderness areas contain something more valuable than oil, gold, silver or copper. Future generations may be wiser than us and learn to interpret its value better than we can, but after a lifetime of outfitting, I'd like to think that in wilderness we may find the soul of mankind.

That is why we need to save it. That is why we need to set aside our differences and support the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Thank you, Sen. Tester, for your leadership.

Smoke Elser lives in Missoula and still looks forward to packing into Montana's Bob Marshall over 50 years after his first trip.