By Carol Henckel/Last Best News

I looked at the fishing pole he handed me. He looked so excited when he placed it in my lap. It was my birthday. My mind was swimming. I came from a family where fishing was done one week of the year when we vacationed on a lake in Wisconsin.

Looking at the rod, I tried to act excited but I had so many questions. He loved to give gifts but this was far different from the usual. Suddenly, I spotted the shiny band and bit of a glitter in the middle of the rod.

This was the start of being married for 39 years to a journalist whose dream was to write about the outdoors. My husband, Mark Henckel, was lucky enough to live his dream in Montana, writing for the Billings Gazette.

He loved this state and he explored it deeply, and in his stories and columns he shared his many hunting, fishing and recreational adventures under the Big Sky. He also wrote about issues that touched on our water, land and forestry, and the agencies that managed these resources.

Looking at Mark’s shoes sitting by the bed, my tears flowed. Only days before, I was forced to look death in the face. Mark was dead, felled by massive coronary as he headed out the door to go fishing.

My friend Barb and I were planning his funeral. I could not get those shoes out of my mind. Finally I asked my friend to take the shoes to church for the funeral. Somehow, I knew I was supposed to have them with me. I also knew it made no sense.

At the church Barb asked me what to do with them and I asked her to put them under the pulpit on the altar. None of this made any sense, but during the service I could not get the shoes out of my mind.

Suddenly and with no forethought, I found myself holding Mark’s shoes up in front of church at the end of the service and asking, “Who will fill these shoes?”

I have been told that I talked about the fact that he had triple-wide feet and because of that no one could wear those shoes. I also said that it would have to be more than one person who would speak out, fight and act on keeping the outdoors the way it was.

It was a surreal experience, but I believe Mark was pushing me from above to say what I said. Since then, it has never left my thoughts. I do not do many outdoor activities now but people often ask what can be done to protect our state’s outdoor heritage. The truth is, it can’t be a one-man show.

In the past few weeks I have listened as friends and strangers have had intense conversations about outdoor recreation. This is normally the time of year for those conversations because of the Great Rockies Sportshow in January, and the various banquets held this time of year to raise money used to keep our outdoors pristine.

Mark wrote about and advocated on behalf of the outdoors, and since his death people have asked me what can be done about protecting our land and resources. Like the shoes that are not filled, we have to deal with change. We have also had to recognize that our precious state is changing. So many have seen changes in where they can hunt or fish. They have concerns about public vs. private land.

Laws that will change the very precious Montana we live in are seen as intrusive by some and much needed by others. Conversations deal with so many issues and many people end up just shrugging their shoulders and saying, “What can we do?”

I came to Montana out of love for my husband. Mark’s family spent a lot of time hunting, fishing and camping. For me it was a huge learning curve but I have come to realize how precious my experiences have been. So, after contemplating the many conversations, I decided that the one-word answer is “protect.” Here is my thinking on this answer, using the letters of the word:

Peel the onion” as Mark would often say. If you receive a tweet or a Facebook post or hear a story, do not assume it is fact. Make sure that before you pass that post on or share that conversation that you are not hurting the very outdoor recreation you love. Opinions are many but they need to be backed by research and facts. Be sure you are correctly informed and others will be by what you say. Misinformation harms the fabric of what we are trying to do.

Read, React, Respond. In our huge, beautiful Montana, we see our ability to enjoy the outdoors as a given, thinking it will always be there, that we will always be able to use it, that it will always stay the same. But for that to be true, we have to stay alert. We have to read about what is happening in the Legislature and the courts. React when something seems likely to harm our outdoors. Respond, contact legislators and speak to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Bureau of Land Management or the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Open your eyes. So often we are so busy with family, work or life that we convince ourselves that someone else will take action. But remember: as Montanans, we are the actors in our state. And if actors don’t speak loudly, have good timing and deliver the message well, the play will be a flop.

Take time. Montana is treasured because of the constant opportunity to share the outdoors with family and friends. But our lives have changed. Too much work, too many activities, the supposed need for more money—all these things make it harder to get out under the Big Sky. The next generation will not recognize how precious our state is if they don’t have enough time to experience it. The “show me” idea should be our priority for the next generation.

Expect resistance. As our population changes, with more out-of-staters coming here for what they believe Montana has, we must stay vigilant. There are going to be differences, but the goal of every new and old Montanan should be to live together, to find compromises and to unite in protecting those things that we cherish about this state.

Connect with others. Having been a part of the outdoor culture for 39 years with Mark, I have met so many people who have had such an impact on this vast state. How have they done it? They have made a choice to be examples of how to live it. Clubs, organizations, men and women who work in the field, educators who see the value of sharing their knowledge and lawmakers pledged to protect our resources have made the difference. Things are changing and the older generation is tired. They have fought the good fight and now it is time for the next generation to take up the baton. Sadly, though, clubs and organizations are losing members, and some are disbanding, and we are losing those important voices. Right now, today, we need to instill in others the value of connecting. It is Montana’s future.

Take someone out. Make one day a month a “tag-along day.” I was recently approached by a man who had two grown sons. He spoke of my husband and how at age 17 he had gone fishing with him. He said he never forgot it, and as a father he took his boys fishing as Mark had done for him. So take the kid next door fishing, birding, hiking or camping. Invite the single mom with a young son to a half day of fishing at a local pond. That half day may turn into a lifetime of fishing fun.

We need to protect outdoor recreation the same way we protect our children and our families. It is a job that each one of us needs to do.