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'Unbroken Wilderness:' Big Sky And The Human Appetite For Consuming Wildness

Big Sky is considered one of the biggest environmental challenges in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and its impacts are spilling into the wild Gallatins

Once the intersecting valleys converging at Big Sky were contiguous forest filled with abundant wildlife.  Over time, as the footprint of development has expanded, it's become a gauntlet that wildlife avoid. There are problems too related to the local sewage treatment and worries about wildfire. For the most part, environmental groups have been missing in action when it comes to gauging Big Sky's impact on public lands.  Photo courtesy Chris Boyer (kestrelaerial.com)
Once the intersecting valleys converging at Big Sky were contiguous forest filled with abundant wildlife. Over time, as the footprint of development has expanded, it's become a gauntlet that wildlife avoid. There are problems too related to the local sewage treatment and worries about wildfire. For the most part, environmental groups have been missing in action when it comes to gauging Big Sky's impact on public lands. Photo courtesy Chris Boyer (kestrelaerial.com)

Part Three

by Todd Wilkinson

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem known today worldwide is a product of innumerable decisions and actions, some large but most small. They involve some who refuse to accept limits on personal ambition and self-interest. And they involve the drawings of lines in the sand, defending pieces of terra firma that are considered inviolate.  

Mike Clark was hired to be executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in the mid 1990s, taking over from Ed Lewis, and he would eventually hand off the reins to Michael Scott.

Clark is best known for his role in scrutinizing and ultimately stopping the New World Mine from being built just off the northeast corner of Yellowstone near Cooke City. He says the Custer Gallatin National Forest would have permitted it, had it not been for public opposition and intervention from the President of the United States. Bill Clinton helped persuade the Canadian mining company, Noranda, it wasn’t a good idea to pursue something that might harm a place as beloved as Yellowstone. 

Clark had his hands full with the New World fight but he was also concerned about simultaneous development pressure that arose with Tim Blixseth’s activity in Big Sky. 

“When Blixseth parked the dozer and said he would strip everything [clearcut the parcels] or develop them in the Porcupine, that was about the time I arrived,” Clark said. “The main thrust was to deal with the enormous amount of checkerboarded lands that would, if developed, fragment an important part of the ecosystem. Our goal was to make it possible to get wilderness protection on some of those lands. Two of the highest priorities were the Porcupine and securing the Taylor Fork in the Madisons that are an elk migration corridor. But first we had to get them into public hands. And we did that. However, it did not happen without having to give something up.” 

Many forget that the Forest Service gave up tracts of public land in the Bangtail Mountains east of Bozeman and the north Bridgers and those sections of land were clearcut. Important wildlife habitat was destroyed and in some places trees have been slow to grow back. “They got nuked and we knew they would. And we knew the land we agreed to trade out around Big Sky was going to get nuked with intense development. Nobody could have foreseen just how much more developed Big Sky would become,” Clark says. “And that’s why protecting the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn as wilderness now is even more important.” 

Disclosure: Clark is a board member of Mountain Journal. 

Clark, who grew up in the Appalachians where mountaintop removal coal mining decimated communities and watersheds, says “multiple use” as an attitude reflective of frontier-era thinking is a failed paradigm in the context of protecting wild places. As example after example has shown, landscapes are not good at accommodating multiple human activities at once and still maintaining their natural integrity. 

Full-field energy development is not good for wildlife, nor is water spoiled by mining good for agriculture. People do not like to live in sight of clearcuts or oil wells. Similarly, he says, wildlife cannot persist amid a lot of human development or constant rushes of recreation activity. 

“Be they Forest Service, Park Service, BLM or any government entity, we need to periodically force meek agencies and the people who work for them to not be mediocre," he says. "What we face, too, is a political problem. If we don’t have Congressional support from people in the Congress who understand that the conservation legacy of this country has been bi-partisan and there are heroes on both sides, then lots of stuff, the wild places we care about among them, will go down the tubes.

” ° ° ° ° 

During the 1990s, another staffer from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Dennis Glick, was drafting the first comprehensive overview of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The 222-page document, Sustaining Greater Yellowstone: A Blueprint for the Future was published in 1994 and identified things worth celebrating, progress and problems in advancing ecological health in the region. 

Today Glick oversees a small community conservation organization he founded, FutureWest, that helps local towns grapple with growth-related challenges and deal with economic hardship in ways that help them maintain their culture and the health of the environment. The inspiration for FutureWest resides with what Glick witnessed in the past, through 40 years of conservation work that involved international land protection in developing nations.

Bart Koehler was with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, as a colleague of Glick’s when the multi-year Sustaining Greater Yellowstone: A Blueprint for the Future was assembled. “The GYC blueprint, edited and approved by staff and board, called for nothing less than wilderness area designations for the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn,” says Koehler who was part of the GYC team that produced the Wilderness Proposal Section of the report. “At least two GYC staffers who later went on to become regional directors for The Wilderness Society, Bob Ekey and now Peter Aengst, also contributed to the blueprint. Peter was an intern and did boundary checks and field work on a number of our proposed Wilderness areas.”

While GYC was battling the New World Mine in the mid 1990s and working behind the scenes to get the land deals expedited, Glick said no conservation organization, not even his own group GYC, was carefully scrutinizing the rapidly-expanding footprint of human development in Big Sky. It was about to erupt with the pending approval for construction of major homes, a lodge, roads, a golf course, private ski hill, trails and other facilities at The Yellowstone Club and adjacent developments. 

Glick showed up at a meeting of the Madison County planning board when development plans for the Yellowstone Club were pending approval. He knew he would be the lone voice from the environmental community. 

“I was alone expressing concern basically about the impact that significant development would have over time on the Madison Range. I said we needed to look at this cumulatively, given what had already happened at Big Sky. You can’t turn back the clock but you can be smarter looking forward,” he said. “What I always say about Big Sky is it only has three problems—location, location, location. When you put major development in the heart of a narrow mountain range, as occurred in the Madisons, the wildlife habitat and passageways animals use to move can easily become fragmented. And that’s exactly what has happened.”
“What I always say about Big Sky is it only has three problems—location, location, location. When you put major development in the heart of a narrow mountain range, as occurred in the Madisons, the wildlife habitat and passageways animals use to move can easily become fragmented. And that’s exactly what has happened.” —Dennis Glick of FutureWest
From a community of just several hundred permanent residents in the mid 1970s, there are today around 3300 permanent residents and 4300 housing units with almost seven of ten of those worth at least $1million. Another 5700 residential units alone are planned for construction at the four major developments (Big Sky Resort, Moonlight Basin, Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, and Yellowstone Club), according to the 2019 Big Sky Economic Development Profile. Growth problems abound.  The Big Sky County Water & Sewer District  is obligated to serve 10,678 single-family equivalents (SFEs) however it can presently only serve up to about 8,000 SFEs and some would like to expand the sewage treatment plant and put treated effluent into the Gallatin River. Half of the 4,100 jobs in Big Sky are held by commuters and by 2023 (not factoring in any Covid-19 impacts) estimates are that another 600-900 jobs will be created.
A graphic included in the 2019 Big Sky Economic Development Profile
A graphic included in the 2019 Big Sky Economic Development Profile
In Colorado, at Vail, which Big Sky often draws comparisons to, the town of Vail and an entity called The Vail Symposium hosted a forum on wildlife issues. Numbers of elk, deer and bighorn sheep are falling. “The decline we’re seeing in the elk herd goes from Vail Pass to Aspen,” Bill Andree, a wildlife officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife said. “It’s not too tough to figure out why when you’re looking at the levels of development, recreation and roads.” 

That’s the direction the Bozeman to Big Sky corridor is headed, Glick says, sharing the anecdote that many people have relocated to Montana from Colorado ski resort towns because their once intimate connection to nature has vanished from the bustle. He laments that over the years, with the exception of scrutinizing sewage spills in Big Sky and the possible release of treated effluent into the Gallatin River, none of the conservation groups in Bozeman (a burg that has one of the highest concentrations of paid conservationists per capita in America) has bird-dogged development in Big Sky and gauged its impact on wildlife, water and air quality, wildfire, and what eventual build-out will look like. 
That's not a tranquil, gin-clear lake with the Gallatin mountains reflected on its surface. It's the massive sewage treatment lagoon in Big Sky and its limited capacity is one of many growth-related challenges facing the community. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
That's not a tranquil, gin-clear lake with the Gallatin mountains reflected on its surface. It's the massive sewage treatment lagoon in Big Sky and its limited capacity is one of many growth-related challenges facing the community. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Glick says the current debate of Wilderness must consider context, not only what’s happened but what is coming. You can't ponder what's best for the Gallatins in isolation from Big Sky and the aggressive efforts being made to exploit or monetize wildlands as much as possible. “We can't undo what has happened so far at Big Sky but Big Sky going forward as a community can prove that it respects its special setting and wants to be a good neighbor to Yellowstone and wildlife," he says. "To  accommodate Big Sky, to accommodate developers like Blixseth, that part of the ecosystem has already given up a lot. Why would you want that kind of impact to have spillover effects across the highway into the Gallatins with industrial recreation? The answer is you wouldn’t,” Glick says. 

Back in the 1990s people weren’t paying as much attention to a place like Big Sky because conservationists were concerned about traditional resource extraction like logging and mining,” he says. “I think it’s been a big mistake that conservation groups haven’t been applying scrutiny to Big Sky the way they would a hardrock mining proposal. And we don’t apply the same level of scrutiny to our favorite outdoor recreation activities either. Today, viewing Big Sky objectively as this creeping complex of development with a long list of spillover effects, it is one of the greatest ongoing environmental challenges in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” 
“I think it’s been a big mistake that conservation groups haven’t been applying scrutiny to Big Sky the way they would a hardrock mining proposal. And we don’t apply the same level of scrutiny to our favorite outdoor recreation activities either. Big Sky is one of the greatest ongoing environmental challenges in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem." —Glick
The pause brought by Covid-19 should give citizens who feel a strong connection to Yellowstone Park and the quality of nature around it a reason to reflect. He encourages leaders in Big Sky to rally behind the findings of a recent opinion poll that found 47 percent of those surveyed said "the environment is what makes Big Sky, Big Sky."

"If it is really our goal to maintain the wild character of Greater Yellowstone as this place set apart from degraded settings elsewhere, then we all need to become more familiar with the concept of cumulative effects and stop taking a blind eye to impacts we know are there,” Glick said. 

What does that mean? I ask him. “It means stop looking at efforts to greenlight mountain biking in Porcupine and Buffalo Horn as being separate from development trends in Big Sky. And stop treating development in Big Sky as being separate from water quality in the Gallatin River and rising traffic levels on US Highway 191 that are causing people and wildlife to die. We need to stop separating the impacts of buildout in Gallatin Valley from Paradise Valley, and more deeply explore how growth issues in Jackson Hole are affecting Teton Valley and the Hoback."

Considering the impact of cumulative effects enables smarter thinking, he says. 

“On the other hand,” Glick goes on, “if you are concerned about the future of grizzlies and wildlife in the Gallatins, and you recognize the Porcupine for being exceptional, then not allowing mountain bikes could be one of the easiest ways to help preserve that piece of the puzzle. That’s not a decision that will be made by conservationists. It must be made as a declaration of vision by the Forest Service and communicated to Congress, just as the case was made for the land consolidations to do what is best for the Gallatins. But it starts with citizens saying, ‘I put the protection of these mountains ahead of my own personal desire to take every square inch of terrain I possibly can.’”
Wildlife research shows that at least nine major elk herds converge upon Yellowstone National Park in spring and then leave the high country when heavy snows arrive. Most of those herds utilize Wilderness areas on adjacent national forests as safe passageways that are free from human development and a lot of human disturbance. Thousands of elk, including members of the famous Gallatin Herd move through the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn to the Madison Valley and western Gallatin Valley. Many elk live in the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn year-round; the drainages serve as important calving grounds for cow elk that seek out secure habitat. Elk no longer move through Big Sky in the great numbers they used to.  Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
Wildlife research shows that at least nine major elk herds converge upon Yellowstone National Park in spring and then leave the high country when heavy snows arrive. Most of those herds utilize Wilderness areas on adjacent national forests as safe passageways that are free from human development and a lot of human disturbance. Thousands of elk, including members of the famous Gallatin Herd move through the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn to the Madison Valley and western Gallatin Valley. Many elk live in the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn year-round; the drainages serve as important calving grounds for cow elk that seek out secure habitat. Elk no longer move through Big Sky in the great numbers they used to. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
Koehler says the Forest Service is not comprised of nameless faceless people who wear uniforms belonging to a distant government bureaucracy. Many Forest Service employees started with the agency because of their affection for the natural world. He has many good friends who made careers in the Forest Service and he speaks of them with glowing respect. But he cites Aldo Leopold, the old Forest Service ranger who as a young man helped tame wild country in Arizona and New Mexico, condoning the killing of the last grizzly bears and wolves in the Southwest and then undergoing a guilt-laden change of heart that lasted for the rest of his life as he sought redemption promoting a new land ethic in A Sand County Almanac.

Forest Service employees need to be called out when they violate the public trust, Koehler says. Not mincing words, he believes Custer Gallatin officials abrogated their legally-bound duty to protect the 155,000 Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area as de-facto wilderness according to the law passed in 1977.

The photographs, below, speak to some of the resource impacts still ongoing in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area by motorized users. They were taken by a hiker in 2018 who was trekking along the Gallatin Crest trail between Hyalite and Yellowstone Park. In the image at upper left, a trail heavily used by mechanized user turns into a stream following a rainstorm creating a trench of erosion. In the photo, upper right, a motorcyclist rides through a creek. And in the photographs at bottom, heavy use has resulted in erosion blowouts and mud bogs.  
Koehler says one of the reasons for the scenes above is that motorcycles were not prohibited from entering the WSA decades ago. “They [the Forest Service] let illegal mechanized trespass occur without halting it or bringing the perpetrators to justice,” he said noting that illegal trespass and trail building can result in a significant fine, jail time and potential banishment from public land. “By failing to take action, the leaders in charge of the Custer Gallatin broke the law and created more conflict,” Koehler says. “They have never been held to account for their actions and it’s only right that they make it good now."

The land consolidation of the 1990s added sufficient acreage into public ownership that, along with the 155,000 acres in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA, there is now a lot more land, far in excess of what the Gallatin Forest Partnership proposes, that could be Wilderness, he claims. "The Gallatins don’t need more conservation groups pushing for more access for user groups. The mountains need more citizens advocating for wild country.” 

As a point of fact, retired Forest Service land negotiator Bob Dennee noted, “mountain bikes were not a use or an issue in the 80s and 90s on the Gallatin National Forest. They didn’t factor into the discussions. It was more of a conflict between motorized users and horseback riders and hikers."

° ° ° °

Many readers here may not recognize the name Celeste Domenico Roncalio—“Teno” to his friends— and be even more surprised to learn that was a progressive-minded politician elected by citizens in the great state of Wyoming—today one of the most conservative states in America. 

Roncalio was the last Democrat to represent Wyoming in the US House of Representatives. He served four terms from 1971 to 1978 and was succeed by Dick Cheney. Koehler recalls testifying at a Congressional public field hearing in Powell, Wyoming that Roncalio chaired to talk about the proposed Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, created in 1978. 
The rugged and unmarred ridge of the Gallatin Range that rises east of Big Sky.  It's topography like this that prompted Wyoming Congressman Teno Roncalio to refer to Greater Yellowstone as "the Alaska of the Lower 48 states." Photo by Chris Boyer (kestrelaerial.com)
The rugged and unmarred ridge of the Gallatin Range that rises east of Big Sky. It's topography like this that prompted Wyoming Congressman Teno Roncalio to refer to Greater Yellowstone as "the Alaska of the Lower 48 states." Photo by Chris Boyer (kestrelaerial.com)
While located mostly within the Custer Gallatin in Montana, part of the sprawling Absaroka-Beartooth and the beautiful "Wyoming High Lakes "spills into the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. Roncalio had just taken a trip to Alaska with his friend, US. Rep. John Seiberling of Ohio and they surveyed lands being considered for inclusion in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act [ANILCA] that was passed by Congress and put into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. The legacy of ANILCA is that the national parks created were large enough to adequately protect the wildlife living inside them. 

Roncalio came home to Wyoming full of awe and still under the spell of vast wild country. At one point, while pondering the contributions one generation can make to the next by leaving public lands in their finest natural condition, he started to hear grumblings from some anti-wilderness constituents in the back of the room. Suddenly, Roncalio shouted "Off the Record!" The stunned crowd went silent and didn't make a sound. “He walked over to the map of northwest Wyoming on the wall and gave it a thundering slap with his right hand and then he proclaimed, ‘This is the Alaska of the Lower 48 states and don’t ever forget that fact.’ Then without missing a beat he announced: ‘Back on the record!’ and the hearing proceeded apace.” 
Wyoming Congressman Teno Roncalio walked over to the map of northwest Wyoming on the wall and gave it a thundering slap with his right hand and then he proclaimed, "This is the Alaska of the Lower 48 states and don’t ever forget that fact."
Roncalio, Koehler says, was keenly aware that people lose perspective when they get caught up into small squabbles and approach outcomes only from the view of what’s in it for them, when they don’t see wild mountains for what they are. It’s hard to find any politician who, in one’s final years, ever declares that she or he were sorry for lands they protected. Koehler asks, “Can those of us who like to recreate in the outdoors say the same? What are we willing to give up so that wild country can hold on?” 

A good size chunk of the Wyoming High Lakes (about 35,000 acres) became part of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The remaining portion of the originally proposed area is a Wilderness Study Area and under immense pressure from high-powered snowmobiles that can reach places they never could before. 

The Forest Service’s land negotiator Bob Dennee says with hindsight that given the polarization that persists in America today, “deals of the magnitude that resulted in the Gallatin land exchange could not happen again. The stars aligned with the circumstances of the time but you couldn’t repeat them now.” 

During the time of the land deals, from about 1992 to 2000, Dennee said he strove to consolidate those lands and conserve them in a way that provided future choices for determining the Gallatins’ fate while minimizing any threats that might come from resale and development. 

“Something I learned over the years is that you want to build the broadest base of support for land conservation, and that it was wise and prudent not to divide various support groups. We needed to get everybody together, knowing later they could sort out where they stood on possible levels of protection.” He doesn’t deny that when the time comes to make hard decisions they will be contentious. 

Having a passionate and engaged public is far better than an indifferent one because it shows Americans care about their public lands. The older Dennee has gotten, the more that he takes the long view. 

 ° ° ° °

Koehler thinks it's patriotic to defend and protect America's wild homefront. Here he sings 'Amazing Grace' set to conservation lyrics at a celebration of the Wilderness Act's 50th anniversary.
Koehler thinks it's patriotic to defend and protect America's wild homefront. Here he sings 'Amazing Grace' set to conservation lyrics at a celebration of the Wilderness Act's 50th anniversary.
If one were to talk with citizens on the street, in Bozeman, West Yellowstone, Big Sky, Livingston or Gardiner, a prevailing perception is that the only Wilderness proposal is the one being offered by the Gallatin Forest Partnership. Many aren’t aware of the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance’s case for 250,000 acres in the Gallatins, or the Sierra Club’s recommendation for 164,000 acres, or that motorized interests want no new acres of Wilderness designated. 

Among indigenous tribes, whenever meetings are held, it is not uncommon for an empty chair to be placed at a table, reserved symbolically for non-human beings to be remembered. Mammals and birds, trees, grasses and the water running through creeks and rivers are not merely referenced on a checklist of things being considered. But their well-being is placed front and center. 

Koehler remembers the missive of the late Mardy Murie, Presidential Medal of Freedom Winner, Wilderness crusader and the woman that a US President recognized as “the grandmother of the modern conservation movement.” 

She said the job of conservationists is not to settle for what some would consider politically expedient but what is best for the preservation of wild places over the long term. She quoted the immortal words of Alfred Tennyson in his poem Idyll of the King about Sir Galahad, the knight seeking the holy grail. She told Koehler to always remember the line, “My Strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure.”

 ° ° ° 

The Gallatin Forest Partnership plan states that, with regard to wildlife, its primary management goals are to: “Ensure current diversity and abundance of wildlife species in the Gallatin and Madison Mountain Ranges; Maintain and enhance core secure habitat; Maintain and enhance habitat connectivity; Maintain and enhance habitat quality and diversity for native species.” 

Koehler says it’s important that the Partnership explain how classifying the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn as wildlife management areas, allowing mountain biking, meets its objectives of protecting wildlife better than Wilderness would? And how, he asks, does encouraging more human use of the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn result in better wildlife conservation outcomes, including maintenance and enhancement of habitat quality and diversity of species inside them? 

Further, how is the Gallatin Forest Partnership Plan a superior option to keeping the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area as it is, for now, with a string of court decisions serving as a warning that the Custer Gallatin must justify, address and remedy any impacts that mar the character of the mountains as they existed in 1977?
Koehler asks how is the Gallatin Forest Partnership Plan a superior option to keeping the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area as it is, for now, with a string of court decisions serving as a warning that the Custer Gallatin must justify, address and remedy any impacts that mar the character of the mountains as they existed in 1977?
In the case of mountain bikes, is there an absence of trails, a paucity of riding opportunity? The Mountain Biking Project, an initiative of outdoor retailer REI, lists 58 miles of mountain biking trail in Big Sky, all located on the west side of US Highway 191 (the other side of the road from the Gallatins). Big Sky Resort alone offers 50 miles of trails accessible via its chair lifts and they include a number of gut-busting downhills. In a story written for Outside Bozeman magazine, David Tucker notes that Big Sky Resort wants to turn Big Sky into a major summer destination for mountain bikers.

Readers here can judge for themselves if they think the kind of riding featured in this Big Sky Resort promo video—or the video, below, shot by a mountain biker descending Mt. Blackmore, or the descent in the northern Bridgers after it, or the video along the popular Sypes Canyon hiking trail would be congruent with world-class wildlife habitat like that in the southern Gallatins. And it should invite the question: are our highest-caliber wildlands about inviting thoughtful contemplation as we move through them or are they merely venues for thrill craft in which one is highly focused on holding it together on a narrow pathway to avoid injury and nothing else? Many readers have told us they have abandoned their favorite hiking trails because of rising mountain bike traffic. They say the Forest Service hasn't heeded their complaints.

Koehler is a realist, he says. He acknowledges that, given surging population pressure in Bozeman, some of the most northern areas of the Hyalite drainage in the Wilderness Study Area—places where the Forest Service wants more concentrated recreation use including winter ice climbing areas, where mountain biking is already occurring at an intense level, and where conflicts are already apparent—should probably be withdrawn from Wilderness consideration. 

But as far as the wildlife-rich stretch of the Gallatins, he suggests revisions that include adding more Wilderness and even seeking an accord with motorized users. He suggests that the Big Sky Snowmobile Trail be re-rerouted out of Buffalo Horn and Porcupine to the west side of US 191 in closer proximity to Big Sky. 

Most of what stretches southward from Bozeman, from the south end of Hyalite Reservoir up and over Windy Pass, flanking both sides of the Gallatin Crest past Big Sky and toward the Yellowstone border—by Koehler’s reckoning in excess of 230,000 acres—should be considered for Wilderness. “If we are going to do this right, to honor the spirit and intent of Senator Lee Metcalf who helped craft the original WSA statute, then we should go back to the promises made by the Forest Service in 1977. We should start there."

Koehler says. “And we should add in the new acreage of the land trades that was hard won and supported by the public, and we should assess how important the wild Gallatins are today and how invaluable they will be in generations to come. That’s the kind of factoring that should be the foundation of an honest, forward-looking wilderness bill.” 

The Gallatins are a place that inspires the public to understand, in real, not abstract ways, the dividends of conservation, he says, reciting more lyrics to the old song he shared 27 years ago about “Elk Valley” when we arrived at the Porcupine Creek trailhead. “We have every species in the Gallatins that were there before Europeans arrived on the continent. Think about how and why a composition like that has disappeared from most every other corner of the Lower 48, except the Northern Rockies,” he says. 

And I sing for the Wild Heart; The Wild Heart; 
 I sing for the wild heart of the Range. 
 And the Grizzlies will come when the snow flies; 
The elk will be back in the Spring; 
This unbroken wilderness, is surely the best 
And in the Fall, the call of wild geese will ring. 

This place has a heart, this place has a soul 
At high noon, full moon, and at dawn 
The wind in the grass 
Is a song that will last 
The Wild Heart of the Range will live on

“We need to think big because this is our legacy we’re talking about. Because of this opportunity in history, we have a once-in-a-lifetime attempt at a do-over…a second chance to do the right thing, do it with honor and respect this wondrous place—the wild heart of the Gallatins—by finally safeguarding it as an unbroken wilderness,” he said. 

Koehler has enormous respect for his old friend and wilderness advocate Michael Scott. And he praises the work that negotiator the Forest Service Bob Dennee did in orchestrating the consolidation. But he doesn’t accept Dennee’s assessment that the stars can’t align again for the Gallatins. 

“I don’t believe it won’t happen again. We have to want to make it happen again,” Koehler said. “Those who set the boundaries of Yellowstone knew they weren’t big enough and it’s caused problems we’re still trying to fix. In the future, no one will regret having more wilderness over less. They’ll thank us. For the sake of wildlife, let’s not repeat the same mistake made in Yellowstone. Let’s not sell the wild Gallatins short.”

ALSO READ:


Plus, the two other parts of this Mountain Journal three-part series on wild Gallatins:


Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.  For more on Wilkinson's career, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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