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The New West: What ‘Make America great again’ means for the West

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CREDIT: David J Swift
By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

The sun still rose in the east, over the mountains and prairies of the wild West on Nov. 9, 2016, and the sight, especially for those left to ponder nothing else, was beautiful.

Now, at last, 21st century America finally knows the shock of what it feels like to be jolted wide awake.

While taking his hunting dog for a morning walk in southwest Michigan 1,500 miles away, Rob Sisson, as stunned as anyone by what happened at the polls on Election Day, was sharing a story with me over the phone.

Donald Trump’s triumph shocked even Sisson Tuesday night, winning Michigan by about 12,000 votes over Clinton with almost 5 million combined votes cast for the two. Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson notched 173,000 votes and Green Party candidate Jill Stein netted more than 51,000.

I’ve known Sisson for a long while and he’s a terrific, thoughtful guy. He spends a lot of time in the West, especially Bozeman and Jackson Hole, because he loves the wildness of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

A hunter, angler, hiker, avid wildlife watcher and father who raised his kids to cherish the healthy outdoors, Sisson is president of ConservAmerica. The organization, whose origins date to 1995, is comprised of “Republicans, conservatives and independents who share a passion for the environment.”

Sisson had some things to say that might not sit well with Democrats and the environmental movement but it’s medicine, he says, they need to hear. Some liberals and the green organizations they run or support have portrayed—and continue to reinforce the notion—that unless you are a member of the political left, you don’t care about the environment or public lands remaining in public hands.

This condescending attitude, he notes, has alienated traditionally conservative hunters and anglers, it has angered Theodore Roosevelt-esque moderates, and it has insulted a lot of people.

In the hours after Trump’s decisive and historic election win, speculation began to run rampant. There were rumors that Trump might nominate Sarah Palin to become the next Secretary of the Interior. Another piece of buzz was that Trump, after his inauguration in January, will move to cede federal public lands to the control of Western states.

If one looks at the 11 states said to comprise the West, more than half are blue. On top of it, Clinton tallied nearly 2.5 million more popular votes across the West than Trump did—a total equal in population to five Wyomings.

Sisson sees the election of Donald Trump as being a double-barreled repudiation—a flat-out expression of the deep antipathy half of America felt for the Clintons, and a condemnation of Republican tactics in asserting that by doing nothing to help the government become a vehicle for addressing the woes of working class (mostly white) Americans, it was accomplishing something.

Patience for that attitude has long-since expired, Sisson said, and now the GOP faces a daunting task. Now it must govern. With control of the White House, both houses of Congress, and likely soon, prevailing in the ideology of the U.S. Supreme Court, the GOP has no one else to blame.

No issue defines the West, its character, appeal, environment and people more than the presence and abundance of public lands. Most of the 600 million acres of public land, outside of Alaska, is found between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.

Sisson believes that any GOP initiative to transfer federal public lands to the states will backfire, and not only nationally. When Westerners realize how it would affect their lifestyles, access and common sense of ownership, it will lead to a revolt.

On the morning after Trump’s victory, Land Tawney, president of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, issued a statement from the organization’s national headquarters in Missoula, Montana: “BHA stands for the public lands sportsman, for conservation of important lands and waters, for continued public access to our most valuable of resources. These values are not owned by any party, and they have historically been championed by leaders on both sides of the political aisle.”

Tawney, a Montana Democrat, shares more in common with Sisson than the issues dividing them. Tawney added, “Following an unprecedentedly contentious presidential election and many hard-fought congressional races, we look forward to returning to a set of shared values: our belief in America’s lands and waters, our outdoor traditions, and enabling every citizen to avail themselves of opportunities to enjoy our public lands.”

BHA National Board Member Mike Schoby, editor of Petersen’s Hunting magazine, interviewed Trump about his views on issues important to sportsmen. “When it came to hunters’ rights and federal land sales, Donald Trump didn’t waffle, stating that a USFWS director appointed by him would ‘ideally be a hunter’ and under his watch there would be no sale of public Western lands,” Schoby wrote in January 2016.

“Public lands, to me personally, are the important issue because they are what can unite us,” Sisson said. “There’s nothing more that I love than being in a national forest, national park or BLM area. To me, public lands are cathedrals, expressions of God’s creation, places where you can feel closer to the creator, a place to get back in touch with my soul and provide clarity of thinking.”

Todd Wilkinson writes his New West column every week. It’s published in the Explore Big Sky newspaper every other week, and on on off weeks. He is author of the award-winning and critically acclaimed “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 amazing photographs by Thomas D. Mangelsen. The book is only available at and when you order today you will receive a copy autographed by both author and photographer in time for the holidays.

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