I was 14 when I first saw the impossible white spine of the Northern Rockies. Nothing in my life up to that point had prepared me for their immensity, having been raised in tidy, fenced farm country of southeastern Pennsylvania. I was drawn into these strange and magical mountains as a hound tracks fresh scent. I did not ask why, I just went.
I would eventually traverse all 21 mountain ranges in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, some numerous times, particularly its most massive: Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Indeed, the spell of the wilderness has not been broken for me in nearly half a century.
The idea that these were public lands, that all citizens own and have responsibility for them, didn’t mean much at first. I was simply consumed by feelings – of freedom, of adventure, of being in touch with part of myself I did not know existed, of breaking the strict codes that came with a Quaker upbringing. And, of course, there were the wild animals like bison and grizzlies that had long since been killed off in the East, mostly in the name of “progress” and to protect private property.
Freedom was at the center of my family’s tradition, but it was of a different species, mostly focused on speech and religion, and the freedom of people from slavery. But the Quakers were all about owning property. We had a small farm. Caring for it – pulling weeds, picking rocks – was a regular chore. Indeed all the land I had known till I went West was owned and controlled by somebody.
At first, I did not fully grasp the distinction between public and private lands. That difference clarified for me when the oil and gas industry set its sights on one of my sacred wild places in the heart of the Absaroka Mountains – which I found out was only the beginning of a corporate slash and burn campaign that would reach across Montana and Wyoming during the late 70s. This was my land too, and I carried a responsibility to protect it – but not alone. I would learn that it takes a team — some with political savvy, or legal or scientific knowledge – but all on fire with love for the big Wild and outrage over the corrupt system that profited by wrecking it.
This battle against big oil and the successful ones that followed were fought on multiple fronts, using multiple angles. I do not recall one hero ever winning the day. It took many of us — mostly a rag tag assemblage of folks who lived nearby or who cared from afar. Even when I became a “professional” conservationist, I never ceased to be amazed at the power of ordinary people working collectively to stop even the largest multinational corporation in its tracks.
While the banner we fought under was “protecting the public lands,” for me and for others the real motivation was a deeply emotional connection rooted in lived experience in a wild place and, most often, in the company of wild animals. The most effective interns I trained over the years – and there were many — were often the ones with longest spiritual tap roots in a particular place, often with a particular animal. My animal was – and still is – the grizzly bear.
There were light moments, but most of the campaigns I was involved in during the last three decades were deadly serious, because the stakes were so high. We know how to destroy wilderness. We’ve succeeded in 99% of the country. We haven’t yet learned how to repair it. For me, the places we have lost to development, like parts of Wyoming’s upper Green River country, still feel like open wounds.
I have gone grey and bear the scars of decades battling for our public lands—our collective emotional space. Never did I imagine that anyone would be talking about selling them off to the highest bidder—as are the rabid ideologues who currently control Congress. There is no returning if we go down that path. The wild places that I love—that so many of us love—in Montana would be tamed and degraded forever.
The memory of a particular object, a red chert hand-axe, keeps me going sometimes. I found it high in the Bighorn Mountains, under an ancient whitebark pine, in the shadow of Cloud Peak. It fit perfectly in my right hand, as it must have in the person who made this hundreds, maybe even thousands of years ago.
The Bighorns were the favorite haunts of Crazy Horse, the Lakota warrior who led the campaign that brought down Custer and the US Cavalry for a time. Native peoples had no concept of private vs public lands. The Earth was quite simply their mother. The connection to her was spiritual, which helps explain why they fought so hard to resist the European conquest.
The fight for the wild is now, as then, a fight for the human spirit and our freedom. Winning will take all of us.
This piece appeared as part of a beefy newspaper insert in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and other Montana papers last Sunday. “We Take Our Stand: Montana Writers Protecting Public Lands.”