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.

Keep it Public

Scott McMillion

I don’t worry so much about losing our wilderness areas and national parks. I don’t think the takers could stand up to the fight if they tried to grab those jewels. It’s the smaller chunks of land that I fear for, the places with scars and without fame or constituency.

A couple years ago, my grandson and I were hunting a sliver of national forest land adjoining the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, even though we’d just driven past about 300 elk on the wrong side of the barbed wire. We found a few beds and some fresh turds. And we found something remarkable: bear scratches on a young lodgepole pine and, just below them, scrape marks where a buck or bull had taken out his frustrations in the previous rut. Two species, predator and prey, marking the same tree. It was cool.

That patch of land is close enough to town that you can hear the train whistles and it’s rugged enough to keep most people out, but not enough to keep the loggers out. They cut a bunch of Douglas firs there twenty years ago and you can still see the skid trails, though the roads have long been closed.

Despite that, the country remains wild enough for all kinds of animals. The logging occurred as part of a complicated land swap back in the 90s, one that paid with trees for valuable grizzly habitat in another drainage. I supported the trade at the time and still do. The logging was fairly aggressive but plenty of trees remain and I’d like to see them stay there. A new owner might have a different view, depending on timber prices.

I really enjoy a very different and distant piece of public land, a place where I chase dogs and birds through the sagebrush every year. It’s on the prairie south of Malta and the Bureau of Reclamation manages it. That outfit spends a lot of time draining or damming streams around the West but also allows cattle grazing. Some years the place gets pretty cowbombed: shit smeared and denuded of grass. Other years, it looks pretty lush, and the bird hunting improves when there’s more ground cover. I’d like to see the grazing managed better, especially in dry years, but a private owner likely would focus more on the size of his calves than the number of game birds.

I fear that places like these likely would be on the short list for land sales or giveaways. They aren’t on a lot of radar screens and they don’t produce much revenue, though private owners might squeeze some dollars from them. And they’d have the right to paint the fenceposts orange, to tell me to go away.

All of our public lands are important, even the bruised places. As a nation, we argue over where and whether to drill, log or dam. But when those proposals arise, we all get to eyeball the details, weigh the pros and cons, pitch in on the debate. It can be tedious, but it’s important.

And if the land goes private, we can’t even have the conversation.

Scott McMillion is the editor of Montana Quarterly magazine and the author of Mark of the Grizzly.

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