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.
No Public Lands Transfer
In Valley County my childhood was expansive and arid blue. My backyard, a million acres of public land, was complete with sandstone castles, cactus, and hardy wildflowers. My father, who managed the Valley County BLM for most of my life, taught me well: the land was for all of us.
Every year throughout middle school, the Valley County BLM office held Take Your Kid to Work Day. Many of Dad’s colleagues had kids who happened to be my age. We’d take the day off school and cram into SUVs to drive for miles on weaving gravel roads to “count grass,” survey a prairie dog town or witness a sage grouse mating dance. We were comfortable in the knowledge that the land was ours. However, while we may have felt like young royalty visiting our vast dominion, in no way were those dry hills more ours than any other American’s. Our parents had the responsibility of managing land that truly belongs to every American citizen, and we had the privilege of experiencing it. Not just on those days, but any day.
My dad and his colleagues worked hard to keep the land of Valley County healthy, much of which is allotted for grazing by local ranchers. Public land usage boosts the economy in rural, ranching areas. In addition, fishing, hunting, camping, and off-road vehicle usage on public land are staples of the livelihood in Valley County.
As well as the million acres of Valley County BLM land, northeast Montana is home to Fort Peck Reservoir, the sprawl of which reaches almost a quarter of the way across the state. This is surrounded by the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge made of 915,814 acres of isolated and rugged public land.
All of this is in danger of being lost.
This spring, Montanans are being asked to choose between a wealthy businessman from California with no incentive to work for Montana’s true interests, and a Montana native who has pledged to keep public lands public.
Greedy voices have warped what should be an equalizing issue. While the transfer of public lands to state hands might not immediately result in the loss of access to these lands, know this: if the state has the ability to sell our land, it will be sold. As soon as Montana feels the pinch of financial instability, the land will be sold. With the wrong man in charge, the land will be sold, and the proud, brilliant folks of Montana will only be able to watch their backyards shrink. This, above all else, will forever change Montana as we know it.
In uncertain times, Montanans want to trust, at least, that they have that land. By protecting access to public land, we make a statement that goes beyond the nostalgia of family camping trips, beyond weekend hunts in the backcountry, beyond even the preservation of elk, black-footed ferrets, or sage grouse. We make a statement of values, unity and pride.
If this country has any pride left, let it be for the land.
Tess Fahlgren was the recipient of Montana Quarterly's 2016 Big Snowy Prize for Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in numerous publications around the state.