Preserving wilderness the right thing to do

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Bob Ekey

There are many reasons to protect wild lands for future generations, ranging from wildlife to economics. But, my favorite reason is this: “We protect these places simply because it is the right thing to do.”

There is little question today that protecting places like Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton national parks was the right thing to do. Hardly anyone today questions the wisdom of designating the Abasaroka-Beartooth or the Bob Marhsall Wilderness areas.

Not only do we celebrate these places as part of our heritage, but we celebrate the conservation leaders who helped get them protected. We thank these leaders for their vision and foresight.

What is overlooked in today’s honoring of these places is how controversial the effort was to protect them.  

The Kalispell newspaper editorialized against the creation of Glacier National Park, saying it would destroy the local economy. Designating Grand Teton was equally controversial, especially in Wyoming, where local ranchers were adamantly opposed but have since benefited handsomely in economic terms. Some Montana newspapers even editorialized against Yellowstone.

And, nearly every wilderness area designated in the last 30 years has come as a result of hard-fought battles. The real heroes of these battles are the community residents who have worked to protect   their backyard for future generations, even if it meant disagreeing with their neighbors.

There are essentially two ways federal public lands can receive more protection. First, is an act of Congress, as in the designation of wilderness areas or naming new national parks. The   second way is by the president taking action, such as declaring an area a national monument.

More than a century after leaving office, Teddy Roosevelt is still the nation’s leading conservationist. By administrative declaration, he created nearly two-thirds of our national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments. While all these designations were accomplished with a stroke of the pen, Roosevelt’s pen became a broad brush. His signature designations brought permanent protection to many of our national treasures, filling our national canvas with a system of wild lands.

While the charismatic Roosevelt reveled in the conservation victories of the day, his autobiography illustrates that these actions generated lots of controversy,   especially his late-night actions that created dozens of national forests days before a bill that ended his authority became law. “The opponents of the Forest Service turned handsprings in their wrath; and dire were their threats against the Executive; but the threats could not be carried out, and were really only a tribute to the efficiency of our action,” Roosevelt wrote.

Roosevelt isn’t the only president to use national monument designations to protect places — 14 of the last 17 Presidents have used that tool. Thirty of today’s national parks designated by Congress were first declared national monuments, including Grand Canyon and Olympic national parks.

I consider each of these places gifts, places where we can go with our families to experience the haunting bugle of a bull elk during the rut, catch a nice trout with your kids, feel the whisper of the wind or the hush of silence. 

Studying land conservation, I am constantly reminded that every generation — in good times and in bad — has passed on more gifts of protected lands as parks, wilderness, wildlife refuges or national monuments. Some of the biggest conservation gains were during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when people recognized the importance of protecting watersheds and forests.

What is our generation’s contribution to this legacy?

We’ve had no wilderness designated   in Montana since 1983. There are two viable proposals being discussed in Montana, and each deserve a place on a possible Omnibus public lands bill that may move through Congress later this year. Both Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act should be included in that bill. It is up to our congressional delegation to make sure they are included.

There are also other places where we can make conservation history in Montana. Right now, some lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management north of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge north of the Missouri River offer some of the best undisturbed prairie left on the Continent. These lands represent much of our heritage and deserve examination as the next place for large conservation gains in Montana.  

If we dare to be half as bold as Teddy Roosevelt to make conservation history, we need to seize the opportunity today.

Let’s have our generation act now so that future generations thank us for our vision, foresight and hard work, and passing along more special places, permanently protected. We don’t want our kids and grandkids to skip a generation when they give thanks.

After all, protecting these lands is the right thing to do.

Bob Ekey is the Northern Rockies regional director for the Wilderness Society.