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Killing the Public Lands Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs

From antiquity, things that are rare have been highly valued. Diamonds and gold would be a good classical example, but in the industrialized world, other assets now hold great value.

In Montana, after a tumultuous century of extractive industries, we find our wild public lands, clean streams and rivers filled with wild trout, and the abundance of native wildlife, that fuels the tourism which now leads the state’s economic sectors. This is Montana’s goose that lays the golden eggs, and why Montana’s junior senator, Steve Daines, would want to kill that goose is a mystery.

In most of the United States, there are no wild trout in streams. Instead, a hatchery truck dumps a load of 7-inch fish that were raised in concrete bins on artificial fish food into the river — usually followed by hordes of anglers eager to catch the clueless hatchery trout. This is known as “put and take” fishery management, which Montana wisely rejected decades ago in favor of nurturing wild trout that reproduce naturally and are well-adapted to the conditions of their home waters.

It is the chance to catch these strong and wary wild trout that brings thousands of anglers and their families to Montana every year — a rarity they simply cannot obtain in their home states because their wild trout fisheries have been lost. Moreover, lacking Montana’s much-lauded Stream Access Law, anglers in other states must access streams at a few crowded and vastly overfished public access sites.

Likewise, Montana also has large and healthy wildlife populations and an abundance of public lands on which to view and/or hunt them — which is why so many are willing to travel so far and spend so much to come here every year.

Those same public lands also contain some of the biggest and best wilderness areas in the contiguous 48 states. While the wilderness areas definitely see their share of hunters and anglers, they also provide solace and an ever more rare opportunity to connect with wild Nature in all her glory. When all you can hear is the sound of the gurgling stream and the wind blowing through the trees, you can bet you’re not in the heart of what we now call civilization with its endless noise, pollution and masses of people.

It is a strange but omnipresent feature of capitalism that only things that produce economic benefit are held as valuable. Of course that shows a dearth of understanding and compassion for the natural world and all its many inhabitants, which don’t operate on a dollars-and-cents basis. But even by capitalism’s short-sighted measures, the value of Montana’s natural assets is now over $7 billion annually — making it the largest economic sector in the state.

Yet, Montana’s U.S. Sen. Steve Daines now has a bill in the Senate that will release rare and precious wilderness quality lands to resource exploitation with all its concurrent woes and impacts. Daines’ deceptively named “Protect Public Use of Public Lands Act” — which should be named “Open Wilderness Study Areas for Corporate Exploitation Act” — is slated for a committee hearing Feb. 7.

Now might be a good time for Montanans to let Daines know that real political leadership must acknowledge current realities, not waste time looking in the rearview mirror at the extraction industries of the past.

Wild lands and abundant wildlife continue to bring outsize golden eggs to Montana — and Senator Daines should be ashamed of himself for trying to kill that particular goose.

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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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