In memory of Tony Schoonen (April 12, 1930-Oct. 22, 2019):
Eighty-nine years ago, a 6-month-old baby was left at the orphanage in Twin Bridges, Montana. In late October of this year, the Montana media noted the passing of that baby, Tony Schoonen. Then, 10 days later, in early November, Montana newspapers could hardly restrain their excitement while reporting “Montana’s recreation economy tops Wyoming's,” generating $2.4 billion for our economy in 2017 compared to Wyoming’s $1.6 billion.
What binds these two stories together is what that young lad, dropped off at the orphanage, grew up to be and then do for Montana.
Tony Schoonen spent the major part of his life as one of Montana’s most visionary and effective fish and wildlife conservation advocates. When an analysis of our recreation economy was done by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, they reported that in 2017 Montana’s recreation economy was near the top nationally, second only to balmy Hawaii.
The economists did take note of the difference in state laws and regulations that firmly anchor public access to Montana recreational amenities absent in Wyoming. In Montana the people have access granting full public use of most rivers between the high water marks. In Wyoming, if you wade, drop your boat’s anchor on a stream bed or pause for lunch on a sandbar, you could be busted for trespassing.
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The differences in stream access are only the tip of the iceberg. Montana has been physically protecting stream channels since 1963 when a law was passed preventing channels from being bulldozed into roadside ditches. Tony Schoonen and associates from Butte were there to lobby that beginning, The law was the first of its kind in the nation. In the many reviews of Tony’s life now being carried in sporting and environmental journals detailing the whole list, it is clear that Tony Schoonen was truly a conservation giant and he made a huge difference in the Montana now passed to our custody.
Tony Schoonen was born on a homestead near Hinsdale, the ninth of 10 children. At age 6 months, the orphanage at Twin Bridges took him in and cared for him through his first 13 years. At age 13 a local Big Hole River ranch family took him in as a promising "hand." They cared for him and he served them well.
Schoonen earned university degrees in agricultural education and a M.S. of Science in education. Professionally, he served as school principle in both Whitehall and Butte. His passions, however, remained preserving, restoring and asserting the public trust management responsibility we all have in fish, wildlife and water resources.
Today the economic "bean counters" take note of the value of the fish and wildlife resource that has been restored to Montana. I hope we all take a moment to reflect on what Tony Schoonen did and others are still doing in the public interest.
Schoonen did indeed set a high standard and we now all benefit from $2.4 billion a year added to our economy — every year. That is not a bad legacy left by a 6-month-old dropped off at an orphanage door 89 years ago!