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The New West: Remembering Diekmann’s legacy a great way to unite Montanans

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CREDIT: David J Swift
By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

There are still many things Montanans can feel good about coming together over. One of them is getting a landmark designated to close out this year—a rare bipartisan gesture that, in its own way, would be a sign of hope in line with the beliefs of the person it honors.

On a map, this piece of terra firma hovers as a nondescript summit known only as “Peak 9,765.” Located in the Madison Range, astride of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, it is, however, a spot encircled by a magical panorama that holds everything we love about Montana within sight.

Snow-capped, chiseled mountains standing against time; unblemished natural beauty; a backcountry holding mystery and wildlife diversity unparalleled in most of the Lower 48; working private landscapes below where ranchers have made stewardship part of their legacy; and public lands, forever accessible to us and descendants we’ll never know.

A heart-felt vantage, it is the kind of viewshed that our dear friend, the late conservationist Alex Diekmann, devoted his life to protecting in perpetuity. Today, even after his untimely death earlier in this tumultuous year, it is one, thanks to his work, that will outlast us all.

Everywhere in the West, there are geographic place names which reference people, many whose contexts for young people especially are difficult to grasp. Some of the honorees never came close to setting foot in our region.

Peak 9,765 has a different context and may well have a different and more appropriate fate, thanks to a broad-based effort to name it for Alex and commemorate his lasting impact on this timeless landscape. What leaves us most moved? That we as Montanans have rallied together, across communities, across the state, across the political aisle, to make it happen.

Besides honoring a remarkable conservation champion, Alex Diekmann Peak would have profound symbolism for our time. Its power emanates from the perspective it offers, the lessons it imparts to younger generations in Montana who may wonder why it’s important in these divisive times to look past differences and unite for a common good.

Earlier in 2016, Alex died of an aggressive form of cancer, though in his abbreviated life he had more than 100,000 acres of landscape protection to his credit, deals that helped to leverage the value of both public and private lands.

Alex was a dad and a husband whose most cherished moments were derived in the outdoors among the company of family and friends. He left us convinced we mattered, he invited us to rally for causes that, in the end, were not nearly as impossible as they first appeared, and made us all feel better for getting involved.

No matter where his colleagues found themselves on the political spectrum, Alex had a tenacious, bulldog belief in the goodness of individuals. And he espoused the core conviction that “habitat” stands for places where humans can still think big.

Now we have an opportunity before us to let Alex’s name become an ever-present reminder that places on maps hold contemporary relevance reflecting our values.

The effort to designate Alex Diekmann Peak has won support from ranchers to downtown business people in Bozeman and Ennis, from seniors to millennials, from hikers, hunters and anglers to those who may never stand on the summit but see it as a touchstone.

Last summer, Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, along with recently re-elected GOP Congressman Ryan Zinke inspiringly introduced legislation to make it official. They deserve our thanks for celebrating a conservation hero who was one of us.

Now the bill must still get passed in the last weeks of the current Congress. If you have a moment, pass along your encouragement to Tester, Daines and Zinke.

Tell them how auspiciously fitting it would be, as our country remains battered and divided, to be gifted a reminder of selflessness.

“It’s amazing what can happen when Montanans converge and delight in the panorama that reminds us who we are.” There would be no better tribute to the person who spoke those words. They came from Alex Diekmann.

New West columnist Todd Wilkinson penned this piece along with noted Madison Valley rancher Jeff Laszlo, conservationist and angler Craig Mathews, and John Muhlfeld, the mayor of Whitefish. Wilkinson writes his New West column every week, and it’s published on on EBS off weeks.

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