The first time I entered the Big Snowy Mountains, I met a cowboy. His tired eyes starred into me with curiosity from under a dirty wide-brimmed hat which drooped lazily over his left shoulder, as if to ask what I was doing here. I remember feeling alien, dressed in my clean blue puffy jacket with a map and compass clutched in my hands, and a backpack bulging with food, extra layers, and a tent. He towered over me from atop his horse. His wrinkled face told stories of these woods, stories I yearned to know but couldn’t quite understand how to ask for.
He asked me if I’d seen any lone cattle roaming the valley. I hadn’t, I said, and before I could ask his name, he had started off down the trail. I watched him quietly disappear into the dark conifer forest, like a mountain lion stalking its prey.
A young and naïve public lands advocate at the time, this experience was eye-opening for me. It was clear that this mysterious man knew the Big Snowies landscape better than anyone. His dated and beaten appearance, and his slow calculated movements resembled an old guard of the western forests. A time when wilderness had more of a mystical meaning than a political one.
This experience set course in my mind a new perspective towards approaching public land issues: Different people are driven to public through different desires. All of these values, utilitarian at best, rest on the same pedestal. These landscapes are managed for multiple uses for a reason. Given the current state of decline of native species and their habitats amongst the west, I wondered how much of an impact the American rancher has on today’s landscapes, and if wilderness was truly right for this mountain range?
The Big Snowy Mountains have received a lot of attention recently. They are listed in a state-wide legislative action to release 29 Wilderness Study Areas, nearly 800,000 acres, to a less protective management directive. A little background is necessary to understand why this is happening.
In 1977, the Montana Wilderness Study Area Act was created. Designating 9 regions in National Forests state-wide for possible inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Around this same time, an additional bill outlined a similar directive for Bureau of Land Management regions and was also passed.
These bills tasked forest managers with a 5-year study period, in which they were to report their findings to congress. During this time, forest managers were to manage these lands in accordance to their Wilderness characteristics until congressional action was made. This not only placed new limits on the types of activities that could persist in these areas to only foot and stock traffic, but they also inadvertently limited who could access these landscapes. Not everyone is physically able to hike the 10 miles into these Mountains, like I had. Nor does everyone own a horse.
Wilderness has its stigmas throughout the conservation world. Often, it’s seen as exclusive, and benefits a niche group of people. Point in case, me: the backpacker. I’m am not here to argue against that. In fact, it’s true, but only to the false realities of a small and select group of folks who want wilderness solely for quiet recreational opportunities. Although I may dress the part, I fight for a cause far greater than that because wilderness stands for far more than exclusive recreation.
I am a public lands advocate studying at Montana State University where I co-lead a club called the Montana Wild Collective. We focus on facilitating opportunities for students to get involved in outdoor recreation and public lands advocacy. My first goal with this club is to break down the negative stigma’s folks have with the national movement towards protecting public lands. My second goal is to guide students in outdoor settings who generally don’t have an outlet to do so.
For our first club outing of the semester, I led a group of students into the Big Snowy Mountain’s Wilderness Study Area. I suggested the Snowies as a high priority our first multi-day outing not only because of a threat to their WSA designation, but because I knew a teachable moment existed in a landscape that was far removed from the recreation bubble of Bozeman, Mt.
The valley was cold, and silent. Aspen stands boomed with vibrant fall colors. A light snow covered the leaves dampening their rustling sound in the wind. Barbed wire fence lines exposed their rusty forms amongst the snow-covered grass. This barrier only enticed some of the students to walk up to them with handfuls of grass to pleaded with the cattle to eat from their hands. As we continued deeper into the conifer forest, the silence of the wilderness deepened as the canopy sheltered us from the wind. We found flat ground to call basecamp, and we began gathering firewood.
We set up tents, built a fire, and started dinner. Everything dehydrated, was rehydrated, and stuffed into tortillas. As we grazed over our backcountry burritos, I began a discussion about the diversity of people who visit this landscape, starting of course with my story of the lone cowboy.
I explained this diversity by listing the user groups that find value in these mountains. The ranchers do not take an opportunity to lease a forest service grazing allotment for granted. Many ranchers, like the one I met on a previous trip, summer their cattle here, allowing their private rangelands to rest and regenerate. The Snowies also harbor a vital watershed which is critical for cattle operations and other animals living within the Big Spring Watershed basin. The Snowies are its head waters.
I then discussed the recreational perspective, which was us. We found immense value in this place because outdoor adventures filled our souls. The allure to climb Greathouse peak and walk along the Knife Blade Ridgeline was worth more to us than working our second jobs, or catching power hour at the Crystal. Time spent with friends and self-reflection without the distractions of society helps us grow as individuals. Yet, the value we placed on this experience, has its costs, as does every other found use for public lands.
The outdoor recreation economy was worth $887 billion in the year 2017, according to reports from the Outdoor Recreation Industry Association. That being said, it is still an industry. Although our presence isn’t physically marked in the Big Snowies, like fence lines and 4×4 roads are. We share the same environmental impacts as any other extractive industry in existence. Ironically, the industry our club is most closely associated with, engages in litigation with the industries that have helped create our lifestyles. I often spend a lot of time explaining this relationship to students, because I feel it brings these stigma’s many of us struggle with full circle. Wilderness, as the legacy of the environmental movement shows, only happens through cooperation.
The next morning, we woke up early and hiked to the summit of Greathouse Peak. We couldn’t see much due to the blustery winter storm we were in. Another fence line guided us through the stormy hills to the base of the mountain where the grasses turned to shale. We located the trail, and began to climb, trees became caked in snow, our footprints grew deeper, and our cheeks redder. We followed the ridge to the top where we couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of us. I assured the students that this was the best view in Montana… A local told me that on the drive in.
Forty years have passed since the enactment of the Montana Wilderness Study Area bill, and no congressional action has been taken towards the designation or release of any but 2 of the original 44 proposed Wilderness Study Areas (WSA’s). Currently the Big Snowies apart of the Helena Lewis and Clark National forest plan revision where locals and state-wide stake-holders have made comments as to what management directive they want to see in the future.
Many Montanan’s, especially those who live closest to these WSA’s have grown disgruntled with the thwarted management status these public lands have remained in. Randy Barta, a local rancher living in the lowlands of the Big Snowies was eager to share his side of things regarding the current forest management directive.
“When I first moved up here years ago, I would see every walk of life enjoying this mountain. The elderly would putt around on their 3 wheelers, the snowmobilers could bring their whole families up to tour the mountain in the winter…All these people, along with the hikers and cross-country skiers, got along. Now, no one is allowed in besides hikers” Barta said to us in an email.
“I saw one fire do more destruction to this mountain in four days then all those people did in over 70 years… Now 20 some years later, because of no management, you can’t even walk through the forest. So much dead fall and the dog haired timber regrew that it’s impassible,” he continued. The forest service often takes a “Let It Burn” policy to wildfires in wilderness areas, restoration work rarely follows due to lack of budgets and a more preservationist management directive.
Another rancher near the Big Snowies had A bit more to expand on from Mr. Barta’s point of view.
Robert Lee and his family run a cow-calf operation that they began 1969 just on the south end of the mountains. He leases a small grazing allotment from the forest service, and visits the Snowies almost every day.
“I love to hunt and I love these mountains. I love the personal well-being that they bring. It’s just a very special place”. He said to us extatically over the phone. His main concern for the Wilderness management of the Snowies was very ecologically oriented.
“We’d like to manage the forests for wildlife, and for habitat. Grazing helps forest management, it also opens up areas for sunlight to perpetuate the grasses. If you don’t graze it, it becomes decadent, and that’s not healthy. Too much grazing, however, is not good. I am concerned about the weeds that people bring in when they visit. We don’t need to prohibit access, but we need to manage the weeds. They’re like a cancer, if they come in and take things over, its game over. I’m a public lands advocate, all I ask is that we take care of them. I want weed and fire control, and timber and grass management”.
Lee’s desires of forest management are not unrealistic. As one of the individuals living within close proximity to the mountain, what happens in the wilderness affects not just him, but his whole community.
“There is a lot of concern by the community about fire management, however the Inventoried Roadless Area adds another layer of protection that limits road building.” Mentioned Deb Entwistle, team leader for the forest plan revision for the Helena—Lewis and Clarke National Forest. However, forest service officials can still operate motorized fire fighting equipment in wilderness as described by exceptions permitted under the special provision section of the wilderness act of 1964. Although with the current condition of the forest in some sections, wildfire would be difficult to fight.
“The whole range is their water supply”, she added, “It helps water quality. Because it has been protected for so long, outside groups [such as the Montana Wilderness Association] see it beneficial to protect the ecology here.”
“We believe Montanans need a say when it comes to managing public lands. Daines and Gianforte have only held two public meetings for these bills, however they were able to choose the attendees. We agree a permeant decision needs to be made here, but these decisions need to be made from a collaborative voice” said Noah Marion, policy and advocacy director for the Montana Wilderness Association.
The students we guided on this trip gained not only perspective of this landscape, but respect for the ranchers here too. “Going to the Big Snowies opened my eyes not only to a unique wild in Montana, but to a unique, complex relationship between recreation and ranching interests. Going on this trip gave me a deeper understanding of the people, the land, and the future of this state I call home” said club member Taylor Burlage to me during our long drive home.
H.R.5149 & S.2206 currently propose the release of nearly 800,000 acres of Wilderness Study areas. Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte are the authors of these two bills, of which they both share a similar name: Protect Public Use of Public Lands. Yet their reasons for wanting to release these bill seam not to resemble an overall voice of Montana, rather they speak for private interests.
Federal designation or not, people are a part of these ecosystems. The diverse voice of Montana and this little club I’m apart of may not be able to change a public policy, but we sure can impact the way people diverse communities can co-exist to reach the same management goals.