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.
Fighting for the Wild and the Human Spirit
I was 14 when I first saw the impossible white spine of the Northern Rockies. Nothing in my life up to that point had prepared me for their immensity, having been raised in tidy, fenced farm country of southeastern Pennsylvania. I was drawn into these strange and magical mountains as a hound tracks fresh scent. I did not ask why, I just went.
I would eventually traverse all 21 mountain ranges in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, some numerous times, particularly its most massive: Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Indeed, the spell of the wilderness has not been broken for me in nearly half a century.
The idea that these were public lands, that all citizens own and have responsibility for them, didn’t mean much at first. I was simply consumed by feelings — of freedom, of adventure, of being in touch with part of myself I did not know existed, of breaking the strict codes that came with a Quaker upbringing. And, of course, there were the wild animals like bison and wolves, that had long since been killed off back east in the interest of “progress” and protecting private property.
Freedom was at the center of my family’s tradition, but it was of a different species. We had some property. Caring for it – pulling weeds, picking rocks – was all consuming. Indeed all the land I had known till I went West was owned and controlled by somebody.
The first time it sunk in that the wilderness I loved was publicly owned was when the oil and gas industry wanted to exploit it, in the late 70s. This was my land too, and I could do something about it — but not alone. It would take a team — some with political savvy, or legal or scientific knowledge – but all on fire with love and outrage.
This battle against big oil and the successful ones that followed were fought on multiple fronts, using multiple angles. I do not recall one hero ever winning the day. It took many of us — mostly a rag tag assemblage of folks who lived nearby or who cared from afar. I never ceased to be amazed at the power of ordinary people working collectively to stop even the largest multinational corporation in its tracks.
While the banner we fought under was “protecting the public lands,” for me and for others the real reason was a deeply emotional connection rooted in lived experience in a wild place and, most often, in the company of wild animals. The most effective interns I trained over the years — and there were many — were often the ones with longest spiritual tap roots in a particular place, often with a particular animal. My animal was — and still is — the grizzly bear.
There were light moments, but most of the campaigns I was involved in during the last three decades were deadly serious, because the stakes were so high. We know how to wreck wilderness. We’ve succeeded in 99% of the country. We haven’t yet learned how to repair it. For me, the places we have lost to development, like parts of Wyoming’s upper Green River country, still feel like open wounds.
I have gone grey and bear the scars of decades battling for our public lands—our collective emotional space. Never did I imagine that anyone would be talking about selling them off to the highest bidder — as are the rabid ideologues who currently control Congress. There is no returning if we go down that path. The wild places that I love—that so many of us love—in Montana would be tamed and degraded forever.
I have a memento that keeps me going sometimes. It is a red chert hand-axe I found high in the Bighorn Mountains, under an ancient whitebark pine, in the shadow of Cloud Peak. It fits perfectly in my right hand.
The Bighorns were the favorite haunts of Crazy Horse, the Lakota warrior who led the campaign that brought down Custer and the US Cavalry for a time. Native peoples had no concept of private vs. public lands. The Earth was quite simply their mother. The connection to her was spiritual, which helps explain why they fought so hard to resist the European conquest.
The fight for the wild is now, as then, a fight for the human spirit.
Louisa Willcox has advocated for wilderness and wildlife preservation in the Northern Rockies for over 30 years, and serves on the boards of Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and The Wildlands Project.