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Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild

Late last week, the headline “Wild Horse Island wows visitors” greeted readers across Montana. The thrust of the article highlighted a tour by the Montana Preservation Alliance, conducted by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. While the island’s natural amenities and wildlife drew praise, missing was the reason Wild Horse Island is still a marvelous and wild place.

The story starts about 25 years ago when the 1993 Legislature was presented with a bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Raney, D-Livingston, that put a number of state parks under the protection of his Primitive Parks Act. Basically, the thought was that many Montanans appreciated visiting and camping in state parks that were not KOA-style, highly developed parks with paved camping pads, electrical hook-ups, waste dump stations and lights.

It’s worth noting that the House of Representatives had just flipped to a Republican majority and was led by a young speaker of the House, a Polson attorney named John Mercer, who rose to his position in no small part because of his skillful opposition to the Democrat majority in the 1991 session. In short, Mercer was no fan of Democrats, but when it came to Raney’s Primitive Parks bill, he not only saw the benefits in cost savings, but the opportunity to keep his much-loved Wild Horse Island essentially the same for his kids as it was for him.

In the case of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the agency enjoyed the risky authority granted it by the Legislature to generate its own revenue by charging citizens to enter, enjoy and camp in the publicly owned parks the agency administers. Unfortunately for Montanans, that meant it cost more to use the developed parks, which were subject to considerably more expensive development and maintenance costs as well as higher costs to fix damages by vandals. The result was a foreseeable continuing upward spiral of fees for Montanans to access and enjoy their own state parks.

Wild Horse Island was no exception to the aggressive development plans being hatched by the Parks Division, which had produced an inch-thick publication of projects the agency fully intended to implement.

Like so many of Montana’s publicly owned resources then and now, the push to commercialize our publicly owned recreational assets were and continue to be a driving factor in agency management. With about 10 million tourists rolling through Montana every year, the over-development and concurrent mass advertising often lead to “loving them to death” situations for public lands, including state parks. Garbage, shoreline erosion, noxious weed infestations, and impacts on natural vegetation and wildlife often characterize the resulting impacts. In short, the recreational resource is degraded in the attempts to reap ever more dollars from commercialization.

Speaker Mercer and Representative Raney knew this 25 years ago, which is why Wild Horse Island is listed first among the parks to receive the protections of the Primitive Parks law. Despite being from opposing political parties, the two men joined forces to overcome the resistance from Fish, Wildlife and Parks and pass the Primitive Parks bill into law, which not only preserved the parks, but eliminated entrance fees for Montanans.

So while it’s great to laud the wonderful naturalness of Wild Horse Island, it’s worth remembering that it primarily exists as an undeveloped park thanks to the foresight and combined efforts of those two legislators. They not only “saved” Wild Horse Island, but set a rare example of Republicans and Democrats working together for the benefit of Montana’s citizens instead of kow-towing to the almighty dollar, as do so many of our current politicians.

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

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