Voices: Our public lands are more precious than ever

The Bluebird-North Hills open space looks out over the Missoula Valley, with the Scott Street/North Reserve area in the foreground. (Athena Lonsdale photo/via Five Valleys Land Trust)

Montanans are doing our part in this very difficult time to help each other out and curb the spread of the COVID 19 virus. We come together and look out for each other, as we always have in times of crisis, and in this case that means practicing social distancing to slow the spread of this disease.

It is times like this that we as Montanans are even more appreciative of our public mountains and foothills, forests and prairies, and rivers and streams. Montanans recreate in the outdoors at as high of a rate as any state, and last year’s Conservation in the West poll found that 80 percent of us identify as outdoor recreation enthusiasts. It’s a huge reason we live here. Simply put, it’s who we are as Montanans.

These are the public lands that we all cherish. They’re the places we go to hunt and fill our freezers in the fall. They’re the places we go to fish, hike or watch wildlife. They provide us solitude and a respite from the daily grind of work.

While we appreciate the millions of acres of federal lands that we enjoy, just as important are the state public lands. Our state Departments of Natural Resources and Conservation and Fish, Wildlife and Parks lands are incredible for their wildlife habitat and recreation values. And they often adjoin federal lands, providing a bigger footprint and access to vast swaths of public lands.

That’s more relevant now than ever. We are all under a lot of stress – worried first and foremost about the health of our families and loved ones, health care workers, our jobs and much more.

Gov. Bullock’s stay at home order was needed and has helped slow the spread of COVID 19. He has also barred non-essential outdoors gatherings of more than 10 people and required a distance of at least six feet between people. We understand the need.

But fortunately, we have millions of acres of public lands that allow us some solitude while meeting that requirement. It’s important that we follow the rules for public lands. We understand that’s needed now more than ever, by respecting the rules for trails, trailheads and campsites. We also understand that gateway communities to our national parks are struggling with a surge of people.

We don’t need people concentrating into some areas of public lands. And we should all continue to be careful and follow safer-at-home recommendations.  When you do get outside for some socially-distanced recreation, safely visit areas that you know well and are close to home so that you don’t risk anything that could strain already stressed health care systems and first responders.

And know that our wild lands and more remote opportunities will be there for us down the road when we get through this crisis.

We also need to appreciate the civil servants working in our state and federal land agencies who help make this dispersed recreation possible. Through their hard work and dedication, we have trailheads, trails and other recreation sites that are maintained and ready for use.

We’re all in this together, and as Montanans we know that with that kind of teamwork, we will get through this pandemic. In the meantime, take advantage of our public lands and waters to find some serenity in this challenging time.

Tom Puchlerz, of Stevensville, is retired from the U.S. Forest Service and serves as president of the Montana Wildlife Federation.