When Lolo National Forest administrator Elers Koch opened his 1935 elegy "The Passing of the Lolo Trail" with the painful and blunt fact, "The Lolo Trail is no more," he lamented "I wish I could turn back the clock and make a plea for preserving the area as it was twenty-five or even five years ago. Alas, it is too late." But it's still not too late for the Wild Gallatin Range.
It doesn't take a degree in a biological science to tell us that in order to keep Montana The Last Best Place, with all its phenomenal wildlife and humanly untrammeled lands, we cannot continue to consume more and more, and then again still more, of those lands. As our trailheads and trails become ever further populated by various recreationists, and as our expanding human inhabitance pushes harder and harder on the edges of wild land, and then fills that land with our loud and pleasure-seeking presence, we are cumulatively appropriating the home of the wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
When conservation groups cede Wilderness Study Area protections of the wildlife-crucial lower-elevation valleys of the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages, they are closing their eyes to the passing of the Wild Gallatins. When the Montana Wilderness Association proposes to similarly dissect all remaining U.S. Forest Service WSA's in Montana according to the collaborations of only those interest groups who agree from the outset that such dissection will in fact occur, they overlook the already increasing pressures on these lands and effectively propose to further it. When they aim to convene local "collaborative, stakeholder-driven" groups for that purpose, they elide the fact that these public lands belong to all Americans, and not only to Montanans and their specific locales. When they say in their defense that 75% of Montanans favor increasing protections for WSA's, they strikingly fail to clarify that they aim to reduce the already insufficient acreages protected by the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977.
The common refrain in the most publicized segments of Montana's conservation community is that we must be practical and accept presumed, contemporary political pressures to keep carving up Wilderness. Everybody gets something, and it's good for the economy, they say. But wildlife and wilderness and the human quest that depends upon them all get less and less. When Aldo Leopold wrote A Sand County Almanac, he was trying to change the worldview that thought we could keep logging indiscriminately and indefinitely without concern. Today, we must challenge our consumptive consumerist worldview that we can similarly recreate without concern.
It is our uniquely wild Montana, its Last Best Place-ness, that keeps drawing more and more humans here. It is our Wilderness and its uniquely apex predator landscapes that make us Montana and not just another part of the New West to be filled in with humans and their toys. We may well be on the brink of losing what still hangs on here. Carving up more and more, even if part of the pie gets legislated Wilderness, stands to push us over the edge.
Can we change? Can we become collectively able to bear the soft sounds and stillness inside our own skins? That is the kind of preservation Thoreau was talking about. And it is the only kind that makes us worthy of a name like homo sapiens, literally "wise man."
Joseph Scalia III is a Livingston psychoanalyst. He is president of the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance and a former president of Montana Wilderness Association.
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