Public Lands: More Use Doesn’t Mean More Conservation

Warning sign along the Firehole River, Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Memorial Day weekend is generally considered the start of the “summer season” in most of the U.S. Finally warm enough to get out in nature and do the zillion things people do for outdoor recreation. But it’s worth wondering, as the crowds swell, whether or not the diverse “great outdoors” can take the ever-mounting pressures on what is a diminishing, not growing, resource base.

For decades many conservation organizations have posited that if more people use our public lands and waters it will result in more people appreciating those resources and subsequently supporting their conservation.

It’s a handy theory — and certainly has a couple of advantages. First, as more wealthy out-of-staters buy up huge chunks of Montana to close off for their private hunting and fishing reserves, they make an inviting target to oppose — although out-of-staters are certainly not the only ones trying to close off public land access.

Second, it’s a lot easier to expound a commitment to public access than it is to take on the actual on-going and increasing abuses of public lands and waters. It’s difficult and expensive to file lawsuits to protect national forests or call for irrigators to leave water instream for fish and aquatic ecosystems. Yet, without our true conservation advocates, there wouldn’t be much benefit to having access to clearcut stumpfields, dewatered streams, and destroyed ecosystems that once supported now-endangered species.

While examples of the theory that more use equals more protection are glaringly absent, the opposite is not true. It doesn’t take long to go to your favorite park, forest, or river and note the abuses heaped upon it. Garbage and toilet paper everywhere, chopped down trees to make room for huge RVs, deeply rutted “troads” and trails, dog droppings, and fire rings filled with broken bottles. On the rivers and lakes, it’s fishing line, often with lures, hooks and sinkers still attached, just waiting to snag waterfowl and riparian birds, and of course the ubiquitous cans and bottles on the riverbed. In the case of our heavily-fished rivers, it’s not unusual these days to see trout coated with fungus from being handled so much and so long for the apparently obligatory social media posts.

Considering more than 10 million people visited Montana last year it’s absolutely ludicrous to believe they all were so aware and concerned that they actually increased the conservation of public lands, waters, and the fish and wildlife that rely on them for existence. It would be very naive to think that people who come from places in which the natural environment has been largely extirpated and replaced by human activities would be familiar with acceptable conservation practices on Montana’s public lands and waters.

Yet somehow, this observable reality has taken a back seat to marketing and over-the-top promotion of stuffing more and more people on a limited resource base. And even when the law specifically says “the legislature finds it necessary to require the department of fish, wildlife, and parks to place maintenance as a priority over additional development at all state parks and fishing access sites” the agency — as well as its “partners” — continue to push for ever more development instead of taking care of existing resources.

The choice is ours. We can continue to promote, advertise, and expound the false theory that more “access” a.k.a. “use” is better for our public lands and waters — or we can objectively consider the on-going abuses and realize the opposite is actually true. Right now that equation is seriously out of balance – and the consequences of not restoring that balance means a degraded future for Montana.

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