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Wilderness: An Update on the Custer Gallatin

Considering the changing climate and recent proposals, four heavy hitters weigh in on the future of Wilderness, wildlife and the Custer Gallatin National Forest

Emigrant Peak rises nearly 11,000 feet out of the Absaroka Range in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Emigrant Peak rises nearly 11,000 feet out of the Absaroka Range in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mike Clark previously served as a board member at Mountain Journal and also as its interim executive director.

By Dorothy Bradley, Mike Clark, Jeanne-Marie Souvigney, John Varley

The issue of wilderness designation in the Custer Gallatin National Forest has been percolating for several years following the proposal of a group called the Gallatin Forest Partnership. The proposal is being replayed this spring.   

Many of us found that the GFP proposal fell short of projected needs in numerous ways. One is that while it proposed to set aside vast acreages for a variety of recreational activities, it did not recommend sufficient wilderness acreage to ensure the survival and biodiversity of present, numerous species of wildlife, some of which are endangered. More seriously, it failed to acknowledge and project the realities of climate change that are now upon us.  

Some of us personally knew our visionary leaders who, way back in 1977, sought to protect substantial chunks of wilderness in this glorious stretch of country. With some great successes, but short of time, they secured protection for a number of “Wilderness Study Areas,” trusting our generation to carry forward worthy proposals for permanent designations that would honor their vision of maximum acreage and maximum protection. This, to us and so many, is right up there with other commandments inspiring us to rise to the occasion. We are likely the last generation that will have the opportunity to provide maximum acreage and maximum protection, and the first generation that must witness and live with many of the grim realities of climate change.

When considering land-use tools to protect the values and dreams of our forbearers, it is helpful to note that we are not just bound to wilderness designations. This past year we have heard discussions of two alternatives for the Custer Gallatin National Forest: National Monument and National Park status. A “Greater Yellowstone National Park” could stitch the two ecosystems together with little disruption, and reinforce protection for wilderness lands. Park rules are already set and the results of park management speak for themselves. The wildlife, fisheries and ecosystem come first, and are suitably protected. Millions of visitors travel through Yellowstone every year, but are concentrated and not overwhelmingly disruptive. Bicycles, horses, snowmobilers and hikers all have decent access while true solitude is protected for posterity.
We are likely the last generation that will have the opportunity to provide maximum acreage and maximum protection, and the first generation that must witness and live with many of the grim realities of climate change.
Most important in today’s consideration of the future of this glorious ecosystem is the aspect of climate change. Scientists issued a “code red” warning about reaching the so-called “tipping point” three years ago. But business continued as usual: carbon emissions continue to rise and the planet is hotter than any time in history. This month scientists observe that we are now in “uncharted territory,” with even massive shifting of ocean currents being a chilling possibility. Protected landscapes like wilderness areas are essential to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas are critical habitats for understanding landscape vulnerabilities and potential resilience, and offer greater opportunity for maintaining biodiversity and providing for adaptation and mitigation, including allowing population migration to new areas. We cannot lose them and should not be willing to release any of them, but rather should be trying to protect them all.

If we remain powerless to turn this climate ship around, we at least have the power—and the obligation—to protect our still-wild landscape as best we can, for as long as we can, as responsibly as we can. Let this be our calling. 

However, and hopefully for all interested parties: we believe our first obligation this 2024 is to focus on elections, the outcomes of which are critical to anything visionary happening in 2025.

Dorothy Bradley, former Montana State Representative
Mike Clark, retired Conservation Activist, frmr Interim Executive Director, Mountain Journal
Jeanne-Marie Souvigney, Conservation Policy Advisor
John Varley, retired Chief Scientist, Yellowstone National Park


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