Montana Wilderness Association names new director as threat grows to public lands

Ben Gabriel will be leaving his post at the Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico to serve as the new executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association.

The Montana Wilderness Association launched a national search for its new executive director and found him in the desert Southwest – at the Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico, to be exact.

Ben Gabriel, a longtime advocate for public lands who starts his new job heading the MWA next month, recently defended the Organ Mountains national monument against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review.

The monument escaped intact, though several others did not.

“We’re seeing threats to our public lands, not only in Montana but across the U.S.,” Gabriel told the Missoula Current on Monday. “The Montana Wilderness Association is a good association to address those threats.”

While the Southwestern landscape may differ from that of the Northern Rockies, public lands still speak to the heart, and the threats they face aren’t much different, Gabriel said.

In Montana, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument also escaped Zinke’s recommendations intact, though the issue of public lands and the role they play in the West, both economically and socially, isn’t likely to vanish.

Public lands played a central role during Montana’s 2016 congressional race and, just last week Sen. Jon Tester raised concerns that the Republican majority could seek to cover the budget deficit by selling off those lands as a means of raising revenue.

“It’s fair to characterize the challenges we see as unprecedented,” said John Todd, MWA’s conservation director. “What we’re starting to see over the last year appears to be a choreographed attack on public lands and our way of life in Montana.”

Among the assaults, Todd included President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to federal land agencies and Zinke’s push to reduce the size of at least four national monuments. Efforts to override forest management regulations are also in play.

“When you put it together, it feels like a systematic approach to taking apart our public lands,” said Todd. “They’re serious challenges and they are very consequential threats, but I think Montanans are up to the task.”

President Barack Obama established the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks as a national monument in 2014, noting the area’s prehistory, biological diversity and inspiring geologic formations. The area covers roughly 493,000 acres east of Las Cruces and reaches heights of 9,000 feet.

Montana shares the same inspiring landscapes, something that convinced Gabriel to apply for the job. His roots in land conservation stem back to his days running several outdoor recreation programs at New Mexico State University.

“His experience with outdoor recreation, leading campaigns in defense of public lands in southern New Mexico, and engaging a diverse range of communities really impressed us,” said Debo Powers, a member of MWA’s state council. “That kind of experience, especially of working with people from many different backgrounds, is something we will welcome having at MWA.”

While the political controversies surrounding public lands grow more acute, MWA believes public support is on its side. To varying degrees, Sens. Tester and Steve Daines have expressed support for public lands, as has Gov. Steve Bullock.

More than 24,000 Montanans encouraged Zinke to leave the Upper Missouri River Breaks intact, and a diverse coalition of conservation and forestry groups have come together to advocate for the designation of 80,000 acres of new wilderness through the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project.

“The current political climate has brought new threats and we have to be responsive to the environment we’re in – but we’re up for it,” said Todd. “Gabriel will show up with a lot of new ideas and energy and connections we haven’t had in the past. We’re excited to get him rooted here and he’ll have to hit the ground running.”

Gabriel succeeds Brian Sybert as MWA’s executive director. Sybert left MWA in May to take over as executive director of the Colorado-based Conservation Lands Foundation.

“I’ll learn more about the membership of the organization and the specific issues that face Montanans – that’s our priority,” Gabriel said. “I look forward to continuing the successful work the MWA has been doing for 60 years.”