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George Ochenski crop

There will be a lot of blustering about freedom by politicians today, but you can bet there won’t be any talking about one of the greatest opportunities for true freedom in the United States today. Namely, our incredible system of designated wilderness areas where anyone can roam free under the open sky and take in what’s left of nature “untrammeled” by mankind.

It’s been more than half a century since Congress passed the 1964 Wilderness Act and President Johnson signed it into law. Much like Yellowstone National Park, the preservation of large blocks of public land as wilderness is an American idea of which each and every American should be proud. These are not the king’s hunting reserves, these are public lands open to all to enjoy, but not destroy.

While many individuals and organizations were involved in the passage of the original Wilderness Act, Montana enjoys the distinction of being home to one of the main movers – Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg, who was the head of the Wilderness Society when the act was signed into law. Born and raised in Montana, his father the forest supervisor for the Bitterroot National Forest for 20 years, Brandy’s dedication to the preservation of wilderness for future generations has never flagged and continues to this day with tremendous energy, despite heading into his nineties while still living surrounded by the beauty of his beloved Bitterroot Valley.

What Brandborg and his cohorts understood then – and what is even more evident now – is the tendency of human beings to overrun the natural world in their seemingly never-ending quest for wealth and resources. But those very activities that have taken mankind to unheard of heights of civilization have not been kind to our fellow creatures on the planet.

Road-building, massive clearcuts, damming rivers and dewatering them for irrigation, mines, gas and oil wells, fencing, extensive overgrazing, and development have all seriously reduced the once continent-wide wildlands to a mere fraction of their former size. Now, thanks to mankind’s intrusion into the natural world, species hover on the brink of extinction, migratory routes used by wildlife for millennia have vanished under concrete and steel. Meanwhile, the spawning runs for anadromous fish such as salmon that provided vital streams of life to both man and wildlife are now disrupted by enormous dams that turn cold, clean, flowing waters into still, warm and often stagnant reservoirs.

These are are all very real, very well-documented impacts and easily observable to anyone who will take the time to look. The one place you will not find these harsh intrusions on the natural world is in wilderness, which is why it is the only true solution to the problems now facing so many species.

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Unfortunately, although Brandborg and his fellow wilderness advocates stood strong and proud to support wilderness for wilderness’ sake, that’s not the case with many of today’s wilderness groups. Having largely abandoned championing wilderness as the last bastion of the world that once was, many of today’s large and well-funded wilderness groups have turned to justifying wilderness designation by lauding the economic benefits rather than the preservation of still-existing ecosystems and the plethora of natural life they contain.

But pandering to the interests of resource extractors under the rubric of collaboration is a losing game. Nothing illustrates that more clearly than the recent announcement by Weyerhaeuser to shut down the former Plum Creek mills in Columbia Falls and then plead a “log shortage” as the cause. That Montana’s highest elected officials bought that line without doing any research is shameful.

The truth is Weyerhaeuser hasn’t bid on timber sales since its takeover of Plum Creek. Instead, the mega-corporation found it more convenient to blame environmentalists for trying to preserve what’s left of Montana’s forest ecosystems. And if anyone doubts the condition in which Plum Creek left its lands, a quick trip up Gold Creek off the Blackfoot will reveal the miles of weed-infested stumpfields that remain as Plum Creek’s rapacious legacy.

On this Independence Day, we should be proud of the freedom wilderness provides us. Free to hike, camp, fish, hunt and wander in the mystery, beauty and silence of the natural world without intrusion from today’s hectic, mechanized society. Wilderness needs no justification – and it would do a world of good for our politicians and their collaborator pals to understand that. As wilderness hero Brandy Brandborg still espouses, we need more, not less, wilderness in which we can all be free for generations to come.

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George Ochenski's column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. He can be reached by email at oped@missoulian.com.

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