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The New West: What is radical?

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If left to the prevailing consensus and collaboration models of modern conservation, which are conflict averse, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks could never be created today. Defying the status quo is the only way we're going to save wildlife from development pressures going forward. PHOTO COURTESY OF NEAL HERBERT/NPS

We benefit today from those who bucked status quo

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

The other night, I had the honor of standing before the Gallatin Wildlife Association whose members were marking the 45th year of their organization’s existence.  

I riffed on “radical thinking,” the true meaning of courage, gray hairs and knowledge based on real life experience in trying—and sometimes failing—to save natural places from despoilation.

It has become fashionable of late for people to claim that all old, gray-haired conservationists are over the hill, senescent, racist and on their way to dementia in the nursing home—expired beyond their useable shelf life. 

Such ageist claims are at best naïve.

In indigenous communities, those in the autumn years of life are venerated for their accumulated wisdom that can only come through longevity, of having covered miles of terrain, of trying to make sense of struggle, pain and sorrow—of having perspective.

I also noted how, in the current social environment, many conservation groups today seem to have lost their backbone. Many shy away from anything perceived to be “controversial” or “contentious” and they approach conservation as if they are trying to win a popularity contest, not considering that being foresighted and ahead of one’s time often is an unpopular and uncomfortable place to be.

Every good thing we love about public lands today, including healthy wildlife populations and beautiful landscapes have come as a result of conflict. 

When the fate of rare, wild country is on the line and in danger of despoilation, conflict cannot be avoided because it requires that citizens rise and stand up for wildlife and landscapes that have no voice, defying a status quo mentality that knows no limit to natural resource consumption. 

This kind of thinking serves as a counterpoint to those who superficially base almost every decision on dollars and cents, not what the intrinsic, innate worth of nondegraded landscapes are.

Yellowstone itself was a notion borne by radicals. Had local white settlers around Gardiner, Montana, been in charge and had those people serving in the Montana Territorial legislature had their way, the national park might never have been created. In fact, it was the foresighted vision of a few brave members of Congress who were thinking ahead of their own time.

No great conservation achievement in America has ever happened without defying the unimaginative and the status quo. Were the idea of setting aside Yellowstone and her neighbor, Grand Teton National Park, proposed today, amid the cultural division, the ridiculous anti-science positions of lawmakers, and the sometimes weak-kneed, conflict-averse mavens of “collaboration,” those parks and the public lands surrounding them might not exist or, at best, they’d be half-hearted vestiges of what they are.

The Gallatin Wildlife Association has staked out unpopular positions, to be sure. For example, its members have had the audacity to say that Montana ought to have its own wild bison herd located in the Missouri Breaks and the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the latter named after the famous Western painter who depicted bison there in his end-of-the-frontier scenes.

GWA members have questioned the wisdom of allowing domestic sheep to graze public lands in close proximity to wild mountain (bighorn) sheep that are vulnerable to catching diseases from domestic livestock and being wiped out. The organization has advocated for development setbacks from river corridors to keep them attractive and useable for wildlife, and to prevent failing septic systems from leaking into waterways. And GWA has questioned the dubious and disproved assertion that more than 11,000 Yellowstone bison had to be slaughtered in Montana based on fear over brucellosis.

These positions, whether you agree with them or not, take guts; and, even if you don’t agree, they are advanced foremost to protect wildlife over the usual prevailing focus on doing things only to benefit humans, which applies to most lands in the Lower 48. 

Not long ago, a famous Bozeman writer friend and I had a chat. We agreed that the level of ecological awareness in Greater Yellowstone was actually higher a quarter century ago; that the inundation of newcomers from urban areas has diluted environmental consciousness and weakened the willingness of citizens to embrace self-restraint for a common good, which includes protecting our wildlife.

We have one opportunity, given human population trends and climate change, to get land protection right and one test is right in our backyard.

If you took the Gallatin Range and dropped it into California, it would be the wildest mountain range in the state due to the full diversity of wildlife that still lives there. If you dropped those mountains into Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, it would be the same. The Gallatin Range, with its full mammalian diversity, accentuated by avians and fish, would be wilder than any national park in the West outside of Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier national parks. 

The Gallatin Range is nothing short of being the Yellowstone of our time and the question before us is: Are we going to be future-minded and set aside maximum space for wildness or are we going to capitulate to the status quo, the establishment, that has the same kind of narrowminded thinking as the Montana Territorial legislature?

The bold pro-conservation positions that we stake out today will not be perceived as radical in the future. Generations whom we will never know will gaze backward with gratitude, the same as we do now to our ancestors. 

The youngsters need to know that the world does not spin around you, no more than it spun around we gray hairs when we were the same age as you are now. 

Conservation, like politics and visionary land stewardship, often doesn’t involve telling your friends what they want to hear regarding the consumption of wildlands for human fun and profit. Sometimes, it requires us telling our friends that we really ought to consider the needs of beings other than ourselves. Is that radical?

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He also authored of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399. Read his latest article on renowned actress Glenn Close in the summer 2021 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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