Jack Ballard: This land is your land

He was a boy among men, a freckled, wide-eyed 12 year-old spending his first week in elk camp. From a low-income family, he listened intently to evening conversation reclined on a folding chair next to a rusted barrel stove in a canvas wall tent.

On the third day, one of the hunters harvested a young cow elk. That evening I grilled its tenderloins, skewers of shrimp and whacked together mushrooms stuffed with bacon bits, parmesan cheese and minced peppers.

Chowing rapturously through his heavily laden plateful, the lad authoritatively pronounced, “I’ll bet a dinner like this would cost at least fifty bucks in New York City!”

A “dinner like this” really can’t be procured anywhere else at any price. Nor can the experience. But the humblest resident of the Treasure State can replicate it. Photographers, anglers, hikers and back-country skiers can engage in similar priceless adventures. No reservations required. Hop in your pickup or sedan. Point its grill toward public land. What awaits is an adventure of your own making.

But Montana’s public lands aren’t insulated from politics. Some Republicans recently pushed to transfer federal lands to states and bar the acquisition of additional acreage. Facing public outrage they’ve mostly backed away from those positions.

Our state’s population is growing. The next challenge is expanding the number of public acres and expanding access to “landlocked” parcels so Montanans don’t wind up with overrun areas as is the case in much of Colorado.

Enter the politics. A governor’s agenda largely determines whether crucial wildlife habitat like the proposed Big Snowy Wildlife Management Area (WMA) that would add fantastic elk habitat and superb hunting to the state’s public lands gets the green light or the shut down.

Candidate Mike Cooney has gone on the record supporting such projects. Greg Gianforte demurs. Perhaps that’s because his campaign has accepted thousands of dollars from the Wilkes brothers whose anti-access antics are well known in the area of this proposed WMA.

I don’t know your income, occupation or whether you fish with bait or flies. But I’m pretty sure you want folks like my kid-cousin to have more of those priceless experiences on public lands. On that one, your vote matters.

Jack Ballard is a nationally recognized outdoor writer from Red Lodge. He was formally a candidate for U. S. Senate but withdrew for health conditions that have since been resolved.