Preserve the Sacred Lands of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Storm over the Gallatins. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Wilderness designation preserves many values. Designated wilderness is a storehouse for carbon and insurance against climate change. Wilderness preserves critical wildlife habitat and wildlife corridors. Wilderness provides for clean water and clean air. And, of course, designated wilderness protects the scenery and ecosystem integrity that supports Montana’s economy.

However, there is yet another value preserved and enhanced by wilderness designation. It demonstrates a commitment to the inherent reverence and spiritual significance of wildlands.

In every human culture, we find that wildlands are at the core of hallowed landscapes. Sacred lands are places where the usual activities of any society are limited, and people approach these places with respect, humility, and awe.

In every culture that I have reviewed, I have found that high mountains are revered terrain. Mount Olympus was the home of the gods to the ancient Greeks. The Zoroastrian culture revered Mount Damāvand in Iran. Mount Fuji was venerated by the Shinto religion in Japan. Mount Sinai is central to Judaism traditions. The Incas of Peru thought mountains were portal to the Gods. Machapuchare was a sublime Nepalese mountain worthy of a long pilgrimage to visit. Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania was fundamental to African tribal religious beliefs. The ancient Celts of the British Isles honored the forces of nature, and among their sacred mountains was Croagh Patrick in Ireland. The San Francisco Peaks were divine in the natural world of the Navajo. Closer to home is the Crow tribe’s reverence for the Crazy Mountains by Livingston.

Every culture has a way of mountain worship. In American culture, we have hallowed landscapes as well. Designated wilderness, national parks, and such public spaces are our version of “sacred lands.”

A common denominator of these lands is that people generally did not “live” among the sacred lands, but they did visit. And when you visited sacred lands, you did so with respect.

In a sense, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of our Nation’s sacred places. The ecological integrity and the spiritual value of this ecosystem are still in jeopardy. As the population of Montana and the country continues to grow, these sacred places become even more critical to our society.

We have a chance to demonstrate our appreciation for sacred places of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by designating wild places like the Gallatin Range, Crazy Mountains, Pryor Mountains, Lionhead, and other roadless lands of the Custer Gallatin National Forest as designated wilderness.

Wilderness is our society’s way of codifying self-restraint and humility and appreciation for natural processes and landscapes.

The Custer Gallatin National Forest wildlands are essential to our culture, but also vital to the “others” or the creatures that reside on these lands such as grizzly bear, bighorn sheep, wolverine, elk, trout, on down to butterflies and other insects.

The opportunity may not come again. We, as a society, have an obligation and responsibility to preserve the sacred lands of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We can do this by supporting wilderness designation for the Custer Gallatin National Forest roadless lands.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy