From Ramshorn Peak on the Gallatin Crest, the Buffalo Horn Creek drainage stretched majestically before us. Two colleagues of the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance and I had hiked there to reflect from that vantage point on the threat of loss of Wilderness protections for this crucial part of the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. The magnitude of the meadows and forest lands below, interspersed across this lower-elevation valley, practically screamed wilderness to us.
When Aldo Leopold wrote in the 1940’s that “All ethics so far evolved upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts,” he was bringing time-honored philosophical foundations to our relationship to the land. When he implored us to “examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right as well as what is economically expedient,” he could not have known how relevant that simple yet elegant thought would be in the year 2020 in conservation disputes over the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).
There is a terrible divide in the Montana conservation community these days. Unfortunately, most folks don’t know much about it, since the old and big organizations have the money to exert great influence on the public’s awareness, and give their members a self-selected picture that fails to tell the crucial story.
Leopold said 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.” It is in their concealed neglect of that biotic community that Montana Big Greens have deliberatively and consistently behaved.
This paper is a call to arms, a call to serious self-examination, for anyone wanting to consider themselves a conservationist.
What’s happening in the debates about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem provides a prime example of how we humans have lost our way, and are in urgent need of psychologically and societally maturing, becoming deeply reflective of, and responsible for, as much information as we can acquire. We need to get off the hamster wheel, look around, and smell the roses. And accept and embrace limits on our pleasure; this is part of becoming an adult. Our Montana society must put sustainability limits on what Leopold had already referred to as adolescent forms of recreation, forms which celebrate the individual human’s performances while ignoring their effects on the biotic community in which they’re playing, and never growing up, as he evocatively put it.
Here’s an example of what’s at stake on the ground, in the Custer Gallatin National Forest and its development of a new Forest Plan that will dictate our relationships to the land for decades. There are other parts of the just released Draft Forest Plan – with 60 days allowed for “objections”- that are deeply troubling, such as no recommended wilderness for the Lionhead or for the Bridger Range, and only a modicum of wilderness relative to the Wilderness-quality land still surviving in the Crazies.
The Gallatin Range is the last crucial, and wholly unprotected yet indispensable wild country in the northern reaches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a vast wild land of some 20 million acres, a true rare find in today’s world of diminishing wild country. Here lives all of the fauna of its pre-1492 conditions.
There are some 250,000 acres of Wilderness-quality land in this range that are deserving of Wilderness designation under the auspices of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Most urgently and most demonstrably in ecological need of that protection is the 155,000 acres of the range’s Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, a designation established by Congress in 1976 that requires the U.S. Forest Service to maintain it in the Wilderness quality and attributes that it possessed at that time, and until Congress either legislates it as Wilderness or else removes it from the stringent protections of the Wilderness Study Act.
The Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance and the Park County Environmental Council are explicitly calling for Wilderness designation and protection of all of the 250,000 acres at stake here. The Sierra Club is calling for 162,00 acres to be likewise protected, including all of the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area minus about 10,000 acres just south of Bozeman, and crucially including the vital Buffalo Horn and Porcupine valleys, which lie considerably farther south down the mountain range.
The biotic integrity of these two lower-elevation valleys are resoundingly considered by ecologists to be of great importance for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s continued integrity of its pre-1492 wild state, which includes the wolf, the wolverine, birthing and wintering grounds of one of the major elk herds of Yellowstone National Park. And, lastly, it includes the Yellowstone grizzly bear, which needs, for its future genetic viability, the current protections still granted by the area’s WSA status for its ability to connect across landscapes with the larger grizzly population to the north, that of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem, whose protection is being fought for under the auspices of the Act that bears its name.
Here’s the rub. A group called the Gallatin Forest Partnership, which boasts of having “collaborated” a deal that defers to interests of both the timber industry and the mountain biking recreation community and industry, has been urging the Forest Service to adopt a Forest Plan that would recommend to Congress to remove the area’s Wilderness protections.
Its Big Green group members, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Montana Wilderness Association, and The Wilderness Society would cede these two wildlife crucial and ecosystem vital drainages to what they are calling a “Wildlife Management Area.” Its green group promoters have presented it as protecting the landscape, and have consistently avoided responding to the three grave concerns it would bring with it.
First of all, it would open the area to mountain biking and bike-trail building that would carve up the pristine meadow and forest land my colleagues and I marveled at from Ramshorn Peak. It would render it a Western U.S. mecca for that sport. Visiting it from below and hiking up into its landscape a couple of weeks later, it was painful to imagine it a place where mountain bikers would come from all over the West to “rip it up.”
The “Wildlife Management Area” would also allow motorized recreation at levels no longer limited by law to that sport’s impact as determined by 1977 WSA motorized capabilities or human population sparsities, that law having been enigmatically and largely neglected by the Forest Service in its management.
Furthermore, and going right under the public’s radar screen, it would allow the Forest Service to build logging roads, and to log the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages according to the caprices of whoever happens to be in power in a given U.S. Department of Agriculture, to log it according to whatever views or bureaucratic constraints or laxness exist at any point in time within the Forest Service administration.
I recently asked a tough question of another fellow conservation advocate who had been a member of the Gallatin Forest Partnership that crafted this proposal. Even though he’d been one of the crafters, it troubled him to the point that it began to make him sick, as he confided it to me. The question I asked him was if he would seriously consider withdrawing, publicly, his endorsement of the GFP proposal. Although he didn’t then commit to doing so, he again confided a mouthful, saying concisely and profoundly, “If I do, I’ll lose a lot of friends. But it’s the right thing to do.” Following his conservation aesthetic in this manner would entail sacrifice, courage, and the right action required by a Leopoldian land ethic. It’s the kind of being an adult that Leopold meant. It’s the kind of being an adult that I am psychoanalytically invoking.
When, in “The Land Ethic, the ecologist, philosopher, and conservationist said that “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and the land” he did not mean a kind of social group good feeling borne out of compromises with one’s ideological or values opponents. Nor did he mean a kind of “practicality” that accepts the dominant socio-political forces of the times and compromises with it. He would have been deeply troubled by that philosophy and strategy that has guided the Montana Big Greens’ “collaborate and compromise” model for a number of years now. And he would have been sickened by their Gallatin Forest Partnership recommendation to cede the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages to mountain biking, motorized recreation, and logging.
No, by harmony, he meant something yet to be won by us humans, a state of ethics, aesthetics and action that can only come from the hard work of deep and courageous self-examination. He was painfully aware that we must make a still-needed change in conservation education, since something continues to this day to be crucially missing from it.
That is, we must help develop a community that is advanced enough to support a moral conservation ethic. He was patently, repeatedly clear and insistent that conservation is in need of an education activism that honors “obligations to land over and above those dictated by self-interest.” The Montana Wilderness Association, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and The Wilderness Society have compromised that ethic in favor of circumventing conflict and finding land management solutions that opponents can politically coalesce around. They call this “practicality.” In Leopold’s words, “In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.” This is the crisis in today’s conservation community.
The major Big Greens, both on a statewide and broader level, have ceased the very hard work of entering into hostile societal terrain and fighting to bring the public out of a self-interested and more juvenile approach to land use and into a mature, and self-restrained honoring of a moral land ethic and conservation aesthetic.
Making wilderness into recreation areas is a “direct dilution” of their very essence, “water poured into the already-thin soup” of our unending despoilings of wild places. This is what the Big Greens have unwittingly done. It would be exceedingly difficult for them to change course; it would require a mourning of the harm they have done. As well as a reorganization of how they think of themselves contributing to conservation. But doing the right thing demands exactly that hard work of maturing.
In a June 25, 2020 opinion piece in The New York Times, philanthropist Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, argues that philanthropists cannot afford to just donate money to worthy causes, but must instead look at how they are complicit in a system which creates the need for philanthropy in the first place. He argues that the philanthropist must be willing to make sacrifices in privileges gained from the unfairness of that very system. Recreationists, environmental activists, and conservation donors all have to do that same thing.
In “How did wildlife groups start collaborating in the destruction of nature?” George Monbiot in his essay in The Guardian on June 24, 2020 – and republished in Montana’s own Mountain Journal just two weeks later, goes right to the heart of the matter. “The bigger and more established an organization becomes the more timid and conformist it seems to get, until it’s almost indistinguishable from the interests it should be confronting. In this age of environmental crisis and collapse, of government lies and corporate power, we need our nature defenders to rise like lions after slumber. Instead, they queue at the abattoir gate like sedated lambs.”
Today’s world needs, more urgently than ever, its environmental leaders to be loud, noisy, educative, disruptive, systemic and ongoing, as the cultural critic Henry Giroux puts it about social justice. That is, today’s environmental leaders need to lead, to respectfully say the hardest things to say. To stand up for those things even when it is risky for them. And to bring the tenets of a morally and psychologically mature and courageous conservation front and center into the public’s awareness. It is not enough to go easily along in a wish to compromise, and to get along with one another. Often, getting along cannot guarantee a just outcome. And sometimes only respectfully speaking out qualifies as accepting our responsibilities to the Earth and all its inhabitants.
How we resolve the current conservation debates could eviscerate, or could conserve, the real heart and soul of this terrestrial cathedral we are blessed to commune so closely with and within. Montana’s wild lands are in grave danger today of being sullied by human expansion and juvenile self-interest, as has happened all across the Western United States.
Our Northern Rockies invite reflection on the profoundest of questions. What will define us as the next few historically fateful years pass? What sorts of stewards of the land will we have shown ourselves to be when Montanans look back twenty, thirty, forty years from now? What stuff will be have proven ourselves to be made of?
With our ever increasing stretchings of the planet’s ability to house our equally increasingly incursive population, we must become able to think in the broadest terms intimated by that deceptively simple-sounding land-ethics recognition, “the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.”
Will we have honored the human quest, and known in our bones what wilderness is? Or we will have ceded far too much, and become something lessor than what we still have the chance to be?