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Memo to Tourists: Enjoy Montana, Don’t Destroy Montana

Photograph Source: PD-USGov-Interior-FWS – Public Domain

Memorial Day traditionally marks the beginning of the camping season in Montana. We are a state rich in natural assets already lost in most the nation, such as clear, clean and cold flowing streams filled with wild trout, forests and plains that still hold grizzly bears, mountain lions, elk, antelope and deer, and of course two premier national parks. It’s no wonder more than 10 million tourists visit our state annually, providing more than $7 billion to the economy. Montanans are legendary for their hospitality, but we also expect visitors to respect our state, follow our laws and rules and enjoy, not destroy, Montana.

It’s really easy to have a great time in Montana thanks to our abundant public lands and the resources they nourish. But our forests, plains and mountains are not “domesticated.” They maintain rare natural functioning ecosystems that can and have been impacted by human activities. Hence, it’s up to humans to be aware of their “footprint” — whether it’s an actual footprint or the impacts from their mechanized transportation.

A simple way to do this is by using “common sense.” Even if you’re on a tight vacation schedule, realize that Mother Nature calls the shots here. If the mountain bike or ATV trails are muddy after a recent rain or snow event, stay off of them — or leave your bike or ATV behind and go hiking instead. Why? Because when recreationists ride muddy trails the run-off goes inexorably downhill until it reaches a stream or river. There it will fall to the bottom and fill the interstices between the streambed’s rocks and suffocate the tiny aquatic insects that are the foundation of the riverine food pyramid. It can also kill any eggs or young fry in those tiny spaces between the rocks.

Likewise, if you’re here in the spring or fall when the trout are spawning, pay close attention to where you’re wading while fishing and avoid the cleared spaces on river bottoms, called redds, where trout lay their eggs. One angler walking through a redd can destroy most of the fragile eggs there, wiping out efforts to produce the next generation of wild trout. Speaking of which, please follow the regulations and limit your kill. And don’t crowd anglers on streams and rivers when fishing or floating — “elbow room” is cherished here and you won’t get a good response by intruding on others’ personal space.

When camping, follow the rules. If an area says “tents only” it means tents only. If it says “no open fires” it means just that, especially during our ever longer fire seasons when an errant spark can set wildfires in forests or plains. And of course, please don’t treat Montana’s parks or roadsides as garbage cans. Every year thousands of volunteers clean our roadsides of trash thoughtlessly thrown out of moving vehicles — and clean roadsides are a source of pride for our citizens.

Don’t ignore “no trespassing” signs or closed gates. Many who visit have no familiarity with livestock operations — or the sometimes fatal consequences from an open gate leading to a tragic collision with livestock on the roads.

Likewise, please don’t harass our wildlife. It’s against state law to allow your dog(s) to chase wildlife, especially when newborn fawns or calves are just wobbling around on unsteady legs.

Finally, you’ll get along a lot better in Montana if you treat Montanans with respect and courtesy. It’s easy to do since Montanans are easygoing people — and you’ll find the result is more than worth the effort.

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

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