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Conserving Politics or Conserving Nature?

Gallatin Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Imagine a world in which conservation decisions were based on ethics and aesthetics, that including the interdependence of all the earth’s organic and inorganic elements. Imagine a northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in which the science of ecology, the science of conservation biology, were inextricable and uncompromising parts of those decisions. Imagine a Gallatin Range from Yellowstone to Bozeman that was conserved with those determinants being uncensored, freely circulated, and openly discussed and critiqued on all sides. Imagine an environmental movement that was united in, and guided by, such views.

The crucially interconnected earth and humanity are sorely in need of a tidal shift in which we adopt a courageous, eyes-wide-open look at the future. This would necessitate public conversations whose talking points are neither guided nor crafted by big money’s purchasing of what narrative and what information gets considered. We need to factor in many things, and their complex relationships.  These include so many ways that we have perilously degraded the earth and each other, and continue to do so, coupled with the economic, food production, and energy production systems that underlie and even necessitate these diminishments.

A crucial example of our complicities and failures in these regards is happening right now in Montana, in the rush to control public opinion and public understanding.  What is known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, as of yet one of the richest and most intact large ecosystems in the world, is facing ever increasing pressures by special interests. As the Custer Gallatin National Forest nears its recommendations for its Forest Plan that will be with us for many years to come, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and The Wilderness Society have all become part of a self-selected group, the Gallatin Forest Partnership, a group that has excluded conservation groups with alternative discourses, alternative understandings of the land. Indeed, excluded were conservation groups that relied both on biological sciences and on a Leopoldian land ethic, that is, an ethic which recognizes “that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts,” that we must consider what “is ethically and esthetically right as well as what is economically expedient,” and that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

The GFP has a highly-funded public ad campaign aided by the very big-money budgets of MWA, TWS, and GYC; this, along with these groups’ reliance on their reputations gained by their historic accomplishments in the era before they all became part of big money’s myopic “non-profit industrial complex,” has allowed them to control what most conservation-minded Montanans reflect upon when they think of conservation planning.

Two of its most recent maneuvers are worth a look. MWA recently placed a Facebook ad for the Gallatin Forest Partnership, with the noble-sounding “Our community is our strength. That’s why we’re working together to protect the Gallatin Range,” with a link to an endorsement for the GFP’s proposal.  And Greater Yellowstone Coalition – which nominates itself as “America’s Voice for a Greater Yellowstone” – likewise mis-uses language, as well as data, when it falsely presents the following University of Montana Survey results as though the survey is unbiased in its structure, and as though it supports the GFP proposal when it really does nothing of the sort. In GYC’s words:

The University of Montana just released the results of a state-wide survey to learn how Montanans value their public lands and rivers. Two of our conservation priorities were included in the survey: the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, which would protect some of our most cherished rivers in southwest Montana, and our proposal for public land protections in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. We were excited to learn that 79% of Montanans support the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act and 77% support the Custer Gallatin National Forest proposal.

And here is the question which GYC is citing as supportive of the GFP. Note that the question offers no alternative way to protect the wild Gallatins, but instead presents the GFP proposal as though it is the only option, and as though it is inarguably conservationist in nature:

Increasing protections for the Wilderness Study Area in the Gallatin Range, which borders Yellowstone National Park, by maintaining the existing recreation uses, conserving some areas for wildlife migration, protecting the headwaters of the Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers and designating some new wilderness. Mining, new road building, oil and gas development would not be allowed on these lands. The proposal was put forward by a partnership of local residents including sportsmen, business owners, recreationists, conservationists and others. Total Support 77% Strongly Support 52% Somewhat Support 25% Somewhat Oppose 7% Strongly Oppose 11% Unsure 5%

To then simply declare, as GYC does, that 77% support “the CGNF Proposal” – a nebulous name, and an entity which actually does not exist – is grossly inaccurate and dissimulative.

Furthermore, the very question asked by the University of Montana Survey itself already sets up the dissimulation, since it does not present alternatives to its single, and vaguely stated, option.

The Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, which actually practices the historic values of GYC, MWA, and TWS – historic values now compromised by these groups – promotes a very different viewpoint, one based on what is best for all of the interdependent earth and its peoples, and not on political and economic expediency. GYWA seeks Wilderness protection for the most wildlife-sensitive lands of the Gallatins, which the GFP would sacrifice to a mis-representatively named “Wildlife Management Area”, and to seek Wilderness protections for all of the remaining 250,000+ roadless acres. With the earth losing whole species and intact ecosystems at a rate which few dare to think about, lest they become despairing, this area, and so much more still wild land, cannot afford to be further compromised.

If you are conservation-minded, take a hard look. There is plenty of comprehensive and critical information available; it simply won’t be provided by the GFP and its members groups.

Joseph Scalia III, Psya.D. is an environmental and cultural criticism writer and activist, and a psychoanalyst. Dr. Scalia is the current President of the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance, and a former President of Montana Wilderness Association. His environmental writings and interviews can be found in Mountain Journal, Wilderness Podcast, Rendering Unconscious, and numerous Montana newspapers.

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