The Time Has Come for Gallatin Range Wilderness
BY HOWIE WOLKE
From the towering Hyalite Peaks near Bozeman to the Madison River Valley near West Yellowstone, the rugged Gallatin Range forms the spine of an unbroken wildland of more than a half million acres. That's the good news.
The bad news is that the wild Gallatins—one of the best unprotected roadless wildlife habitats in North America—are being transformed from an icon of pristine wildness to an embarrassment of ugly off-road motor route scars hemmed in by an expanding network of roads and logging cuts.
Fortunately, in 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness areas are our most strictly protected lands. Mechanized travel and resource extraction are generally forbidden, though traditional non-motorized activities such as backpacking, horse-packing, hunting, and fishing are allowed. Because agencies are instructed to “preserve the wilderness character” of each Wilderness, Wilderness areas are our healthiest lands. They provide our cleanest water and they are clean air reservoirs. They protect wilderness dependent species such as grizzly and wolverine by protecting big chunks of habitat, so they are also a hedge against future endangered species listings. Wilderness also nourishes the human psyche. As Aldo Leopold once said, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot”.
Obviously, I am one who cannot, but I am confident that this sentiment is shared by many fellow Montanans, who, after all, arise each day and choose to continue to live in this grand place.
And why not? Isn't our little corner of the world still “the last best place”? Well, maybe. You see, since part of the Gallatins were declared a Wilderness Study Area in 1977 (thanks to the late Senator Lee Metcalf), Montana has lost many thousands of acres of roadless areas to roadbuilding and resource extraction, and to an expanding network of destructive off-road vehicle routes. Except for the severely compromised Lee Metcalf Wilderness (1983), we've designated no Wilderness since 1978. Other states, including Colorado, Arizona and populous California have recently protected millions of acres. Even Wyoming, saddled with an anti-wilderness Congressional delegation that included Dick Cheney, protected 1.1 million acres in 1984.
Montana's last foray into Wilderness politics ended with a 1988 veto by President Reagan. That wilderness bill, ushered through Congress by then Representative Pat Williams, would have protected 1.4 million of Montana's 6.2 million acres of national forest roadless lands, but because of the roadless areas it neglected—many with low elevation forested habitats —it still left much that could be saved. Or squandered.
But now, the slate is clean. In this century of wildland scarcity and climatic uncertainty, all wildlands deserve protection. The Gallatin Range is the only mountain range in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that lacks Wilderness protection. Elk, moose, deer, bighorn, bear, wolves, wolverine, lynx, cutthroats, owls, eagles, songbirds and more thrive in this scenic mountain paradise. There's a unique petrified forest. From peaks and plateaus alpine tundra plunges through old growth conifers to juniper, sagebrush, bunchgrass and pronghorn. Watershed values are incalculable. Backcountry hunting and fishing opportunities are unsurpassed. Simply put, if any area in the U.S. cries out for Wilderness designation, it's the Gallatin Range.
Moreover, studies show that Wilderness areas encourage diverse economies, as Wilderness visitors leave loads of loot to regional businesses, from outfitter/guides to restaurants, gas stations, motels, outdoor shops, grocery stores, airports and more. In economic terms, Wilderness is the gift that keeps on giving. Trash our wildlands, though, and watch the dollars go elsewhere. With apologies to Butte, few folks come here to see the Berkeley Pit. Even fewer come to see clearcuts and ATV scars.
Personally, I see Wilderness not as an interest-bearing account but simply as one of America's best ideas ever. Some might consider it audacious, but I think that wild country, and the life that it supports, have intrinsic value, simply because life is wondrous and wilderness is the basic historic fabric that spawned all life on Earth.
When it comes to wild country, what we choose to neglect fails to survive. Let's choose to protect the wild Gallatins by asking our Congressional Representatives to designate a 547,641 acre Gallatin Range Wilderness and a 200,000 acre Wildlife Conservation Area on adjacent national forest lands. It's the least we can do for future generations of human and non-human life.
Howie Wolke is a wilderness guide/outfitter and co-founder of Montanans for Gallatin Wilder-ness, a regional grassroots group working to protect the Gallatin Range. See gallatinwilder ness.org.