Lezlie Pearce-Hopper and Warren Hopper

This year, more than 14,000 people applied for the opportunity to float, camp, fish, hike, and enjoy time in wild country with special people on Montana’s treasured Smith River. The number of people looking to enjoy the fabled landscape of the Smith has shot up in the last decade.

As a Smith River landowner, it’s refreshing to know that an increasing majority of Montanans favor protecting the state’s finest natural attributes over developing them.

The recently released State of the West poll, which has been conducted annually for 13 years by Colorado College, concluded that through changes in national and state administrations, economic swings, and a pandemic: “What has remained incredibly consistent is Westerners prioritizing conservation of the land, water, wildlife, and their ability to enjoy the outdoors.”

Few places in Montana embody those values as much as the Smith River and its surrounding public lands. Fortunately, Montana ranks among the top states in its voters’ preference for protecting places like the Smith.

By the numbers: 66% of Montanans favor their Members of Congress protecting natural resources on public lands rather than having them developed. Montana ranked highest, at 86% of voters saying that loss of natural resources is a serious problem in their state. Similarly, Montana voters (85%) lead the West in recognizing that loss of fish and wildlife habitat is a serious problem. Conserving those fish and wildlife is a priority for 93% of voters in this poll. And, not surprisingly, the percentage of voters who are also hunters or anglers and consider themselves conservationists is highest in Montana.

One of the most heartening statistics in this poll is that these numbers cut across party lines. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in Montana share a strong interest in protecting natural resources for conservation values and for the deep enjoyment fish, wildlife, rivers, and public lands hold. Conservation is something that unites us.

If you’ve ever floated the Smith River, these numbers are no surprise. It’s an inspiring place, as are so many of the public lands and waters in Montana. It’s a bit of good news to see that one thing these places are inspiring in people is a sense of urgency to protect them. And the Smith River has its share of threats. From wildfire, to drought, to invasive species, to mining claims on public lands in the watershed, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the future of this Montana treasure.

But through collaboration we can take these challenges head on, find solutions, and keep the Smith River a special place, long into the future.  And, as the stats show, Montanans will support protection of places like the public lands surrounding the Smith River.

With a clear threat of large scale, acid mine drainage producing mining in the Smith River watershed, it is imperative the Forest Service take steps to protect these public lands. Especially those federal lands that encompasses the river’s most important tributaries, hunting grounds, grazing allotments, trails, multi-use opportunities and cultural sites.

While protecting all existing and historic uses, the Forest Service can use tools at their disposal to prevent industrial hard rock mining in the Smith River basin and protect it for future generations.