Our landscapes have long defined us as Westerners. It’s only fitting that they should draw us together now.
It’s an adage that Westerners like to fight over public lands, whether it’s access, how to manage them, or what should and should not be protected. (Think landowners vs. recreationists, tent campers vs. RVers, skiers vs. snowmobilers, or any of the myriad clichés out there.) Given that we’re stuck with an administration that fosters divisiveness — a strategy that some believe is a deliberate ploy — the old formula of Western infighting serves the administration well in its vendetta against our public lands.
But it’s backfiring. Threats of vastly increased oil and gas drilling, mining, dam construction and even calls to sell off our lands entirely have sparked a rallying cry for people across the West. It may be hard to see in an age of vitriolic rhetoric where inspiring stories tend to fall by the wayside, but this phenomenon of people uniting to defend our landscapes is our unsung saving grace.
Nowhere is this more evident than the story of how Montana’s East Rosebud Creek received Wild and Scenic River designation last month, an event that flew mostly under the radar despite the magnitude of what it signified. The effort to forever end the conversation about proposed dams on a 20-mile stretch of East Rosebud was born from unity among historically opposed groups: ranchers, second-home owners, paddlers, conservationists, sportsmen and average citizens. It was the first and only bill that Montana’s sole congressman, Republican Greg Gianforte, introduced and then got passed. It was supported by two senators from opposing parties, and this in a state that hasn’t designated a river as Wild and Scenic in 42 years. It happened because a near-unanimous group of Montanans wanted it. It was a staggering display of unity in an era of hyper-partisanship.
East Rosebud is a special place. From its zenith on the great Beartooth Plateau in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness all the way down to a heartbreakingly beautiful U-shaped valley bounded by granite peaks, that river imprinted itself on the hearts of Montanans who fished it, hunted its headwaters and walked beside it on the famous Beaten Path. It wove itself into the identity of fourth-generation ranchers and newcomers alike, all of whom recognized that its preservation didn’t owe allegiance to user groups or political parties.
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East Rosebud is special, but it’s not unique. This story is unfolding across the West as people unite to defend our wild landscapes against the administration’s threats — as in New Mexico, where citizens stood in tight rank to save Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument outside Las Cruces from the same fate as Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante. With a wider geographic lens, Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship just requested the Interior Department withdraw more than 100,000 acres of public lands in five Western states from future oil and gas leasing, joining groups like Sierra Club and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in protesting the increased swaths of land on the table for fracking and drilling.
It’s reflecting in our local politics. In Washington state, a bipartisan group of Metropolitan King County Council members showed up in Washington, D.C., to support a bill designating the Mountains to Sound Greenway as a National Heritage Area, legislation introduced by Republican Rep. Dave Reichert and Democrat Rep. Adam Smith. The measure, which passed the House in June, was supported by private property owners, tribes, conservationists, heritage organizations and citizens. In Idaho, home to the biggest wilderness in the Lower 48, outspoken public lands protection critic Raul Labrador lost the Republican gubernatorial primary in June to Lieutenant Gov. Brad Little, who held a strong conservation and stewardship stance.
We need to continue to tell these stories to draw strength from our unity. Our landscapes have long defined us as Westerners. It’s only fitting that they should draw us together now.