Sustainable Missoula: Continued access to open, public lands requires vigilance, investment

Mount Jumbo is one of the treasures of Missoula’s open space program. (Cynthia Swidler)

Here in Missoula, we have incredible access to public lands. That didn’t happen by accident.

When we’re climbing to the summit of Mount Jumbo or gazing out our windows at its profile, it can be easy to take our access to those steep but stunning trails and wide open views for granted.  But we might not have been so lucky. Mount Jumbo and the other public lands that comprise some of our most cherished spaces could easily have ended up privatized and off-limits. The trails we follow up the mountain could never have been built, and the elk herds that traverse the hills could have been driven out by development.

As we look ahead to National Public Lands Day this weekend, it’s a great time to celebrate our public lands and the innumerable ways they contribute to our quality of life and our economy. Hiking, biking, snowmobiling, hunting, birdwatching, kayaking – the ways that we enjoy and recreate on these lands are diverse and growing every year. At the same time, we depend on our public lands for bountiful wildlife, clean water, and open space.

In celebrating our incredible public lands across Montana, it is important that we also recognize those whose foresight, courage, and sweat have ensured that we have public lands to celebrate and the access to enjoy them. We should remember and honor the Native Americans, the original inhabitants of these lands; the writers of our state constitution who guaranteed us the right to a clean and healthful environment and public ownership of our state’s waters; the longtime landowners who have offered their land to the public, and the public that has been willing to purchase and preserve it; the conservation heroes and everyday advocates who have fought to keep our wildlife habitat and wildest public lands undeveloped; the stewards and user groups who have built and maintained hundreds of trails and bridges through our mountains and valleys.

Every trail, every acre, and every fishing access point exists because of the decisions made by our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents to preserve and protect our public lands for those who would follow them. So then it must follow that for our children and grandchildren, every trail, every acre, every fishing access point that they enjoy will depend on the decisions we make today. Will we pass on this rich legacy of public land and access that we have inherited, or will we see a future in which our children and grandchildren live in a Montana that would be unrecognizable to our eyes, one in which our trails, hunting grounds, trout streams, and wild places are diminished, inaccessible, or off-limits?

Most Montanans would say that we want this legacy to continue. We want future generations to have the same access, the same views, the same opportunities to experience solitude and wonder. And yet, if we are serious about passing on this legacy, we must not take our public lands for granted. We must stand up to those who would develop these lands for private gain at public expense. We must protect those lands that are critical to our wildlife and our clean water. We must fight for the right of every Montanan to have access to the public lands that are our common heritage. We must rebuild and maintain, not only the trails and campgrounds that allow us to enjoy these lands, but also the health of our public lands themselves. Lastly, we must ensure that we continue to protect new places for future generations, as our ancestors protected their special places for us.

Doing so will require grit and perseverance. It will also require real investment, especially as pressures on these lands continue to rise. But as we celebrate our public lands and the foresight of the Montanans who protected them for us, let’s make sure we do the same for future generations. Let’s ensure that our children and grandchildren can enjoy the same steep trails, wide-open views, and access that we do. We know it will be worth it.

Kayje Booker is the State Policy Director at the Montana Wilderness Association.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

Saturday, September 22: Celebrate National Public Lands Day on Mount Dean Stone, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

Saturday, September 22: Rebuild Floodplain Trail at Milltown State Park for National Public Lands Day, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

September 25, October 2: Mobile Market, Missoula Urban Indian Health Center Parking Lot, 4:30-5:30pm

October 4: Climate Smart’s Monthly Meetup on Transportation and Smart Growth, Imagine Nation Brewing Co., 5-7 p.m.

October 9, November 12: American Indian Women’s Book Club, Missoula Urban Indian Health Center Parking Lot, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

October 20: Fall Wellness Clinic, Grand Opening of Missoula Urban Indian Health Center’s Medical Services

October 20: Missoula Clean Energy Expo, Caras Park, 11a.m.-3p.m.