Monday, April 20, 2015

Our Public Lands on the Fence

By Todd Tanner

As Google Earth flies, it’s 5 miles and change from the Echo Lake Cafe, which is one of the Flathead Valley’s great little restaurants, to the parking area at Camp Misery.  The trip looks relatively innocuous on a computer screen, but in real life it’s a bumpy half hour by car. Down here in the valley, we’re at 3000’.  Up where the gravel road dead-ends, and where the trail into the Jewel Basin starts, you’re looking at almost twice that.  If you happen to make it all the way to the top of 7500’ Mt. Aneas, you’ll be rubbing elbows with some truly amazing, top-of-the-world views, not to mention mule deer and mountain goats.

In case you’re wondering, we’re talking almost a mile of elevation change.  The really amazing thing, though, is that once you leave the valley floor, all that land, which stretches on seemingly forever, belongs to you, me, and our fellow Americans.  It doesn’t matter whether you live here in Montana, or in Colorado, or Wyoming, or New Mexico. That acreage, which is administered on our behalf by the U.S. Forest Service, is ours.  We 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 that awesome, majestic Big Sky. We’re free to wander to our heart’s content on public land - and for an awful lot of Americans, that’s an incredible thing.

Now whether you, personally, ever take advantage of a place like Jewel Basin, or float the North Fork, or hunt western Montana’s backcountry, is almost besides the point.  The fact that you own those places, and that you benefit, either directly or indirectly, from all that clean air, clean water and wildlife, along with the billions of dollars that our Federal lands inject, year in and year out, into our economy … well, it’s a pretty incredible dividend, paid on the principal - or make that the principle - of public lands. 

I’d go so far as to say that here in Montana, and across the West, our public lands equate to freedom.  Actually, let’s make that freedom and prosperity, because almost everything of substance, from our western heritage to our economy to our recreation, flows down from the bounty of our public lands.  

Which is why it’s so disappointing that 51 U.S. Senators, every single one entrusted with our nation’s well-being, just cast a vote that could help destroy the West; that could turn over America’s public lands to multi-national corporations; that could lock out hunters and hikers and shift control of our timber, our grazing rights, and our minerals, along with the very life blood of the West - our water - to rapacious profiteers and foreign interests.  

That’s right.  51 U.S. Senators just voted in favor of selling off our public lands; in favor of high fences and “No Trespassing” signs. The won’t tell you that, of course.  No, they’ll stand in front of their microphones, puffed out like the cat who ate the canary, and state that they’re for smaller government and state’s rights and local control.  But once you sort through the fine print and make your way through the obligatory smoke & mirrors, you come, first slowly, and then almost inescapably, to the truth of the matter.  This is about power, and 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 DC want to privatize our federal lands.  

Montana author 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"  Sadly, only a handful of western senators, including Senator Tester of Montana and Senators Bennet and Gardner of Colorado, voted “No.”

So it looks like 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” 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 a nation, as citizens, stand up and defend the America passed down from our fore-fathers?  

It brings to mind the question Mrs. Powell asked Benjamin Franklin back 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.”

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