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Viewpoint: The wilderness purists have only themselves to blame

Hikers make their way toward Heart Lake in the proposed Great Burn Wilderness along the Montana-Idaho border. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Over the past several years, Montanans have heard a fair amount from a small but vociferous circle of mostly Bozeman-based environmentalists. I call this circle the Wilderness purists.

Through widely circulated email screeds and the occasional guest column, the purists have attacked mainstream conservation groups for taking a pragmatic and inclusive approach to conservation and for not living up to the purists’ ideal of what conservation groups should be doing, no matter how un-strategic, ineffective, and ultimately futile that ideal may be.

The purists have lobbed their rhetorical grenades at Wild Montana and other conservation groups for their work on the Gallatin Forest Partnership proposal, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act (BCSA), the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, and other conservation initiatives born of collaboration and compromise among different interest groups.

The purists launch these attacks even though the collaborative approach to conservation has proven to be immensely popular among Montanans, as suggested by the 2022 bipartisan Colorado College public lands survey, which found that 79% of Montanans support the BCSA. 

One of those purists is columnist George Ochenski, who has lambasted the BCSA (and collaboration in general) on several occasions. He recently wrote about the 2022 Colorado College poll, chiding Montana’s Republicans for ignoring voters’ conservation priorities, which is evident in the polling that shows overwhelming support for numerous conservation measures. But Ochenski did some ignoring himself: he cited every Montana-related result in the polling, except the one showing overwhelming support for the BCSA.

Judging by their regular discrediting of mainstream conservation groups, the purists don’t seem particularly interested in building support for their own proposals among Montanans who cherish
public lands but do not regularly worship at the altar of Wilderness. 

Here’s a taste of the kind of overheated rhetoric that’s become commonplace among the purists, this from a guest column by Steve Kelly of Bozeman:

“These pro-business ‘movers and shakers’ lack basic human integrity…. Love of money comes first. A cynical, authoritarian, use-and-abuse philosophy resonates among businessmen. Legislating commercial opportunity and government-sponsored jobs is music to ears of unrepentant money-worshipers.”

And one wonders why enviros sometimes get a bad rap in Montana. 

It’s instructive, though, to look beyond the florid rhetoric of the purists and see what they’re actually proposing. Created a few years ago by a few purists in the Bozeman area, the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance has a proposal for public lands around Bozeman. It would close:

– 234,621 acres of winter motorized recreation use, including the Big Sky Snowmobile National Recreation Trail, designated in the 1960s.

– 257 miles of mountain bike trail access, including Emerald Lake, Chestnut Mountain, Corbly Gulch, Truman Gulch, North Cottonwood, South Cottonwood, and sections of Sypes Canyon and Middle Cottonwood.

– 171.8 miles of motorized trail access.

– Most of the Bozeman Ice Festival.

– The Bridger Ridge Run, among many other foot races.

Most people working in conservation learn how to discern the difference between what’s feasible and what’s not, given the social and political realities they work under. Purists don’t want to bother with making that discernment and belittle those who refuse to join them in chasing rainbows.

The purists appear to be under the mistaken impression that landmark Wilderness achievements have come without compromise. That’s never been the case, not even with the 1964 Wilderness Act, which was passed only after Senators Lee Metcalf and Mike Mansfield allowed new mineral claims to be staked in designated wilderness areas until 1984.

More proof that collaboration and compromise work is in the recently finished Custer Gallatin National Forest plan. The plan marks the first time the agency has recommended wilderness for the Gallatin Range – something Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson credited the Gallatin Forest Partnership with helping make possible. Across the Forest, the plan protects more than 400,000 acres, including 140,000 acres of new recommended Wilderness, 106,000 more acres than it did before the plan was released.

That’s a remarkable conservation win. And it happened because conservation groups built public support by engaging more than just hardcore Wilderness lovers. The purists could only express disappointment. But after spending more time drafting screeds – blaming mainstream conservation groups for everything from starving grizzly bears to ushering in the end times — than building public support for what they want, they have only themselves to blame.

– Dr. Jeff Reed lives in Paradise Valley, where he owns and operates Reedfly Farm.