Take on challenge to preserve wild legacy


by Brian Sybert

Wilderness defines Montana. It makes our state special. Wilderness beckons just beyond our highways, office windows and front porches. Wild places provide our best hunting, fishing and places to explore. They safeguard our clean water and abundant wildlife. Easy access to wild country makes possible a way of life here unimaginable in most states.

We’ve inherited our wilderness from previous generations who had the foresight to protect them. Our challenge is to care for our wildland legacy and pass it on to future generations. It’s a big challenge that requires teamwork.

Montana land-use politics can be contentious, but our shared love of wild Montana creates a lot of common ground. Our common interest brings together citizens who care deeply about our state.

Often lost in the acrimonious and conflict-laden debate over land and wildlife conservation efforts are the stories of people from diverse backgrounds and livelihoods who come together around the commonly held value of “love of place.”

Ranchers, loggers, business owners, farmers, foresters, sportsmen, environmentalists and outfitters have decided Montana public land is too important to continue to just plant feet and throw mud. We’ve found it challenging at times, but reaching agreements around a common vision for the management of our public lands is proving worthwhile.

The Montana Wilderness Association has worked for years to build and strengthen relationships, particularly with the timber industry, its workers and their communities. It’s been tough work for all of us, but hard work is producing good results. One obvious example is the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, now pending in Congress. The FJRA is a huge step toward creating much-needed jobs and preserving what little timber industry we have left in Montana. This legislation also restores forests and protects deserving country for all of us to camp, hunt and fish.

The FJRA is the product of compromise on all sides. But for the many thousands of Montanans who are rallying around this bill, it isn’t about winning or promoting an agenda – it’s about what’s best for Montana. What most of us want is to keep Montana just the way it is.

Similarly, we work with mountain bikers and horse riders to forge uncommon agreements to keep trails quiet and build an amazing trail system on the Continental Divide. It’s never easy, we’re not always right, but working together is what gives everything we do great strength and longevity.

Our partnerships are sometimes described in the press as involving odd bedfellows or unlikely allies. But when we sit down to talk with other Montanans, we almost always find we have more in common than any of us imagined. We all want clean water and great fishing. We all want great hunting close to home. We all want well-managed forests with abundant recreation opportunities. We all want decent job opportunities. And we all want Montana to be just as wild as it is today when our children and grandchildren catch their first fish.

We all treasure the iconic and majestic Rocky Mountain Front. Rich with wildlife and ranches that have passed through several generations, this amazing landscape is best just the way it is now: wild, working and open for everyone to enjoy. We agree about this. What else can we agree on? The only way to know for sure is to keep talking.

All the places Montana Wilderness Association works to protect are special. They’re places you never forget – whether you live nearby or visit from afar. These are the places people return to year after year, bringing their families. Places like the Bob Marshall, Absaroka-Beartooth, and Cabinet Mountains, all teeming with wildlife, trails, campsites and amazing scenery.

In its 53-year history, the Montana Wilderness Association has climbed many mountains, and we’ve never done it alone. It’s always been Montanans working together. Many of us identify ourselves by our passions – hunter, angler, biker, horse rider. Many of us describe ourselves by profession – rancher, logger, business owner. But we’re all Montanans. As the world becomes more crowded, the path to preserving our uniquely Montana way of life requires us to roll up our sleeves to continue working with citizens across our state to get things done.

Brian Sybert is the new executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association.