Montana has a long tradition of listening to and respecting — revering — its writers and the state’s literary tradition. In an unprecedented show of unity, more than forty of Montana’s best writers have gathered, in rapid response fashion, to write original essays and testimonials advocating for the protection of our public lands, and endorsing Democratic House of Representatives candidate Rob Quist’s position on this (literally) most common ground of issues. Please vote on May 25.
Ours to Lose, Ours to Defend
The German-born wildlife artist Carl Rungius emigrated to America and earned a global reputation in the galleries of New York the roaring 20s. When Hitler took power in the 1930s, he wanted Rungius back in the Fatherland, painting propaganda posters for the Third Reich.
Hitler’s emissary found Rungius at Banff National Park, in Alberta, and tried to woo Rungias back to Europe. The Nazi diplomat, knowing of Rungius’s fondness for nature and the hunt, said Goebbels would give him permission to hunt the imperial estates of Germany.
Rungius gestured toward the sweeping grandeur of the Rocky Mountains and said: “This is my hunting estate now. I don’t need anyone’s permission.”
Rungius had become an American and cited one of the great ideas of North America: that access to nature, be it in Banff National Park, Yellowstone, or the great national forests he loved in the United States, belonged to ALL people. Unlike Europe, where hunting estates were the realm of the moneyed and blooded elites, America’s wild nature was there to inspire and challenge all of us.
That, certainly, was the aim when President Theodore Roosevelt created our national forests, including the Kootenai National Forests where I live, in northwestern Montana.
There is a mountain on the Kootenai that I consider my “hunting estate.” On a day with good tracking snow I have followed the spoor of seven distinct species of big game. In one day. That spot is part of me at some isotopic level. The mountain has fed me protein from its elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, trout and forest grouse for 25 years. By my count, my friends and I have packed 18 head of big game off that mountain. Literally tons of meat, which we ate and fed our families. It literally sustained us.
Frankly, the mountain does not give a rip for me and has made that abundantly clear many times: the time it left me chilled near to hypothermia in a rainstorm; the many times I’ve been bewildered in a blizzard; once I stumbled at close range upon a bear gorging on a gut-pile and for a moment feared it was a cranky grizzly instead of the timid black bear that cannonballed off at first sight of me.
My fondness for the mountain is heartfelt, if unrequited. I have watched too many golden eagles soar below me on the open ridgeline to not grow a deep affection for the place. I have seen the fog lift from too many dawns, like God’s own veil swept from his grandest sculpture, the Cabinet Mountains. I have taken too many deep, satisfying afternoon naps in the duff beneath Ponderosa pines that were old centuries before the first white explorers passed through Kootenai country.
When Theodore Roosevelt created the national forest system, he was disparaged by many and called, among other things, a Bolshevik. Today, those same sorts of critics want to dispose of our public estate entirely because it does not square with their ideology of what America should be. We should not be surprised. America is largely a capitalist country where we keep score with dollars, hold property rights and unfettered business enterprise near sacred.
But there is something else in America besides the bold line between what is yours and what is mine. There is what is ours. And to be truthful, “my” little mountain on the Kootenai National Forest is not merely mine, it is ours. The entire national forest system, and the entire 640-million-acre public estate, is ours.
Our national forests are important to all 1 million Montanans, but are likewise important to all 320 million Americans. You cannot wrest something away from 319 million owners and give it to a smaller group of people (any group of people) without being called out for what it is: theft on a grand scale. A most unpatriotic theft at that.
Our national forests are our national treasure. But they are not merely ours, either. They also belong to our children. For those, as Roosevelt said, in the womb of time.
But today, they are ours. Ours to use. Ours to enjoy. Ours to defend. Ours to lose.
Ben Long is a father, outdoorsman, and conservationist in Kalispell.