Saturday, February 04, 2023

Public land: America's best idea

| November 1, 2018 3:42 PM

I wish all Montanans could travel the world and experience its diversity of nature and culture. Though America is a very special country, we are young and far from perfect, and there is so much to be learned from other places and peoples with much longer histories than Europeans in America.

The United Kingdom and Europe show us what privatization of most of the land looks like over many centuries of time. In a nutshell, almost every square inch of the landscape has been manipulated by people in one way or another. In northern Scotland, which once resembled the Yaak, clans and wealthy land barons removed the timber, save for a few sparse woodlots. The land now supports little but sheep, cattle and the occasional red deer, which the wealthy may pay $2000 per point to harvest on a landscape that looks like a hybrid between a tightly mowed putting green and the moon. It has its own beauty, but “natural” it is not.

There are many critical issues facing citizens of Montana on Nov. 6, and perhaps none more important than our commitment to the concept of public land, which was entrusted to us by visionary conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt. Even with our population at only one third of today’s in the early 20th century, he and others viewed the unrestricted use of resources with great concern, and now in 2018 the pressures on the last vestiges of wild land are enormous.

Today our elected officials take their personal visions and philosophies to Washington and determine the fate of 27.4 million acres of federal public land in Montana and 640 million acres in the United States, most of which is in the west. If they choose to relinquish the oversight of public land to private companies, or sell it off all together, we will have lost control of it forever. Any lands returned to the public would likely be accompanied by enormous clean up costs born by future taxpayers just as we have seen in Libby, and would ensure our condemnation by generations to come.

The “multiple use” concept of public land will always be contentious as we all have different visions of what that should look like. But we should defend to the death our right to debate those uses rather than give up all rights to the land and abandon our heritage and our way of life. The Kootenai National Forest is a great place to grow trees and in my view should support a thriving timber industry with a dependable supply of wood for local mills. Clean watersheds, wilderness values, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities must all be part of the equation.

Jon Tester and Kathleen Williams have, by their actions, and not by empty, vote-seeking words, supported keeping public lands in public hands. Matt Rosendale and Greg Gianforte clearly view public lands as opportunities for real estate development and big business to the exclusion of the general public. They represent the very faction so detested by Montanans displaying their “Don’t Californicate Montana” bumper stickers 40 years ago. Short-term, big-profit interests from Maryland and New Jersey are no different.

Jon and Kathleen have my vote. My grandchildren will know that grandpa refused to support giving away their birthright, their heritage, their future, a wonderful way of life, and one of America’s very best ideas: public land.

—Gene Reckin