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Are We Giving The Wild Gallatins The Visionary Protection They Really Deserve?

By the wildlife they hold, the Gallatin Mountains are wilder than most national parks in the Lower 48. So why are the Forest Service and enviro groups balking at more extensive protections?

The Buffalo Horn is part of a larger Wilderness Study Area that offers habitat for a gathering of rare wildlife more diverse than most national parks in the Lower 48.  Photo courtesy Howie Wolke
The Buffalo Horn is part of a larger Wilderness Study Area that offers habitat for a gathering of rare wildlife more diverse than most national parks in the Lower 48. Photo courtesy Howie Wolke
"The contemporary world is the idea of the death of the subject as such, in favor of the existence of human animals competing, in conditions of absolute inequality, to divide up the available resources". —Alain Badiou 

 "The earth does not lie." – Marshal Pétain 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following essay is published here as an op-ed by Joseph Scalia III, current president of the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance and former board president of the Montana Wilderness Association.

By Joseph Scalia III

I have spent decades of my life pondering the connection between personal well-being and what could broadly be described as environmental ethics.  Let's ponder together some questions that those of us who believe in landscape conservation are currently wrestling with: 

What is our responsibility to future generations in terms of the world we leave them? What is our capacity for being altruistic—that is, expressing a selfless concern for the well-being of other creatures currently dwelling on thinner margins of survival? Is a mountain biker's desire to ride through a wild expanse of public land for purely personal pleasure equal in its ethical importance to that of a grizzly bear which needs the same space, replete with minimal human disturbance, in order to survive?  

Whether we are an ATV rider, environmentalist, backcountry skier, snowmobiler, mountain biker, hiker, or any other kind of forest user, are we willing to not let our personal egos override our abilities to be generous? If not, why not?

Today, if you've done any traveling and possess an awareness of the world, then you realize the earth and its peoples, most of whom dwell in crowded or degraded places, are suffering in unprecedented ways and degrees. 

If you are ecologically literate, then you also realize that wild places capable of supporting the rarest kinds of wild animals are in short supply and dwindling in number every day. An exception to that sad rule, for the most part, is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and set within it is a line of mountains many of us know as “The Wild Gallatins.” 

The Wild Gallatins exist in a still healthy natural condition and no amount of more human use, monetizing more outdoor experience, is going to make that natural condition better. So the question therefore is: what are  we protecting them for?

Greater Yellowstone is not just another region. It is the best we've got left in the Lower 48—our American Serengeti, if you will, for wildlife.  Most of it is federal land which means it belongs to all citizens. The Wild Gallatins are, within the National Forest System, an equivalent to Yellowstone National Park for the array of iconic wild animals that still have a home there. 
Greater Yellowstone is not just another region. It is the best we've got left in the Lower 48—our American Serengeti, if you will, for wildlife.  Most of it is federal land which means it belongs to all citizens. The Wild Gallatins are, within the National Forest System, an equivalent to Yellowstone National Park for the array of iconic wild animals that still have a home there. 
A century ago, Gifford Pinchot, who served as a chief of the Forest Service, wanted to designate the Gallatins (where they push northward out of Yellowstone stretching to a few miles outside of today's suburbanized Bozeman) as a special refugium for the wild—a place where the persistence of species would take priority over resource extraction happening at the time. Essentially, the wildlife refuge Pinchot had in mind was a forerunner to today's wilderness.

The elk herd there, descendants from a near extinction of the species, was, like the elk of Jackson Hole in Wyoming, considered a national treasure worthy of extraordinary habitat protection. 

Bordered on its flanks by the incomparable Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers, this idyllic and uniquely beautiful mountain range, encompassed by the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, is home to a high caliber of biodiversity not yet marred by the continuing influx of settlers over the last 200 years. That is no small statement. Here, the fallibility of human ministrations has not outdone our higher selves. Not yet. 

The Wild Gallatins, in many ways, are even more extraordinary and fragile than they were in Pinchot's time when vast sections of the mountains were "checkerboarded" with private parcels doled out to the railroads to liquidate the resources on them at their will, the same as "patented" lands taken by miners thanks to the 1872 Mining Law still on the books.

Miraculously, the Gallatins were spared from massive clearcutting and roading and mining, and thanks to more heroic recent bipartisan-supported land trades, they were spared from becoming a real estate play like Tim Blixseth did with the Yellowstone Club that is part of Big Sky.  In fact, those in the conservation community who helped orchestrate the land trades did so so that more of the Gallatins could become a federal wilderness.

More than 200,000 acres are deemed legally suitable for Wilderness protection in the Gallatins. Do you know how rare that is? And do you know that in every major mountain range encircling Yellowstone, on national forest land, there are major Wilderness areas that have an important insulating presence—safeguarding wildness inside and astride of America's first national park—against a rising tide of people?  

The Wild Gallatins have been tenuously spared, though sadly not through the deliberate vision of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest that, over the decades, has been been willing to punch in roads across them, treat the forests as a tree farm, and help facilitate behemoths like Big Sky. The reason the national forest was not extensively cut over during the height of the big timber era and crisscrossed by logging roads was because environmentalists used the law to challenge narrow-minded thinking.

In recent years staff with the Custer-Gallatin National Forest has, citing a number of excuses, also allowed growing numbers of recreational trespassers to violate federal law. Federal law mandated that key areas—the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages—remain free of  wheeled machines that enable humans to travel faster than they ever could on foot. So lax has it been, so uncommitted were those in charge of the Custer-Gallatin in enforcing the regulations when they knew the trespass was happening by motorcyclists and mountain bikers, that they had to be brought to court by the firm Earthjustice and forced to follow the law.
In recent years staff with the Custer-Gallatin National Forest has, citing a number of excuses, allowed recreational trespassers to violate federal law that mandated key areas—the Buffalo Horn and Porcupine drainages—remain free of  wheeled machines that enable humans to travel faster than they ever could on foot. So lax has it been, so uncommitted were those in charge of the Custer-Gallatin in enforcing the regulations when they knew the trespass was happening, that they had to be brought to court by the firm Earthjustice to follow the law.
This sets the context for why I am writing and what I am about to say. It is the reason why I am challenging the Forest Service and leaders of the Gallatin Forest Partnership (comprised of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association and mountain bikers) to participate in an open public discussion moderated by individuals who will ask tough questions. We, citizens, deserve to know what their rationale is for selling protection of the Wild Gallatins short. What happens to the Gallatins is, it could be argued, the most important land management decision in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the last 50 years.

° ° ° °

We—residents of southwest Montana, inhabitants of Greater Yellowstone and citizens of America who own these public lands—find ourselves at a pivotal historic moment with the Gallatins. The Custer-Gallatin National Forest planning process will decide how much of the mountain range gets protected in perpetuity (that means evermore) in the coming year. Once the decision is made, we won't be able to go back and correct any mistakes in thinking. This is it.  There are no more wilderness-caliber lands being made. What happens with the kind of land protection the Wild Gallatins receive will secure the fate of Greater Yellowstone's geographic core and the species that live there. 

If you want a glimpse of what's possible, if a mistake is made, imagine the ever-crowding conditions that Bozeman residents now find at Hyalite Reservoir,  the "M" trail, and the maze of mountain biking trails—some being illegally blazed—in the Hyalites and up Bozeman Creek as the Gallatin Valley explodes with people. Imagine that spreading into the Wild Gallatins. On top of it is Big Sky whose presence is already spilling over into wild country. Next, imagine representatives of the Gallatin Forest Partnership disparaging those of us who are advocating for more protection, not less. 
The development footprint of Big Sky, Montana and the number of people it holds continues to mushroom. Over the years few environmental groups, including the three groups that formed the Gallatin Forest Partnership, have devoted much time to scrutinizing its expanding negative impacts, Scalia says. Big Sky is today considered a sacrifice zone to development with its tentacles stretching far and wide. Wildlife habitat has been severely fragmented in the Madison mountain range. Right across U.S. Highway 191 from Big Sky are the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages in the Gallatin range. There, mountain biking interests in Big Sky, including bike shop owners, have worked with the Gallatin Forest Partnership to prevent the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn, currently part of a wilderness study area, from achieving full-blown Wilderness protection in the Custer-Gallatin Forest Plan, Scalia says.  For those groups to endorse the creeping effects from industrial strength outdoor recreation, as manifested in Big Sky, into one of the most important areas for wildlife in Greater Yellowstone is a travesty, he says and asks, "Why should more wild country be sacrificed to serve a community whose appetite for development seems unbounded?"  Photo courtesy Chris Boyer of Kestrel Aerial Services (kestrelaerial.com)
The development footprint of Big Sky, Montana and the number of people it holds continues to mushroom. Over the years few environmental groups, including the three groups that formed the Gallatin Forest Partnership, have devoted much time to scrutinizing its expanding negative impacts, Scalia says. Big Sky is today considered a sacrifice zone to development with its tentacles stretching far and wide. Wildlife habitat has been severely fragmented in the Madison mountain range. Right across U.S. Highway 191 from Big Sky are the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages in the Gallatin range. There, mountain biking interests in Big Sky, including bike shop owners, have worked with the Gallatin Forest Partnership to prevent the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn, currently part of a wilderness study area, from achieving full-blown Wilderness protection in the Custer-Gallatin Forest Plan, Scalia says. For those groups to endorse the creeping effects from industrial strength outdoor recreation, as manifested in Big Sky, into one of the most important areas for wildlife in Greater Yellowstone is a travesty, he says and asks, "Why should more wild country be sacrificed to serve a community whose appetite for development seems unbounded?" Photo courtesy Chris Boyer of Kestrel Aerial Services (kestrelaerial.com)
The Forest Service decision is rapidly coming down the tracks and frankly there is little evidence "the public" realizes what the consequences are, because the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Livingston Enterprise, the Forest Service and the Gallatin Forest Partnership have not adequately illuminated what the current trendlines are pertaining to rising human use levels and development pressure; nor for what climate change and rapidly emerging technologies such as high-powered snowmobiles, ATVs, dirt bikes, mountain bikes and ebikes mean for the character of the Gallatin Range. 

They do not want to discuss it becomes doing so would undermine their argument.

The Gallatin Forest Partnership (check out their plan by clicking here) is willing to take a hard line in condemning hardrock mines but it is reluctant to tackle the even more pervasive impacts of residential sprawl on private land and outdoor recreation on public land now rising to industrial-strength levels and eroding the quality of wild country many of us love. When they say they are protecting wildness—indeed the slogan of the Montana Wilderness Association is #keepitwild—what do they mean and for whom?

I bet most readers here don't know that the Gallatin Range is uncontestedly recognized by scientists as holding exceptionally diverse, undisturbed biodiversity, and possessing a wildness crucial to the ongoing integrity of numerous flora and fauna, including the iconic, humbling Yellowstone grizzly bear population. 

The Gallatin Range, as a topographical extension of Yellowstone Park, is part of a crucial biological corridor that connects Greater Yellowstone to other ecosystems. The Porcupine and  Buffalo Horn drainages, which would forfeit their potential Wilderness protections under the terms of the Gallatin Forest Partnership plan, constitute a major migration corridor for elk, and they additionally are home to other species as bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, black bear, wolves, cougar, mule deer, wolverine, and 18 species of wildlife that are at risk according to the Montana Heritage Program.

I bet many readers here have not read the analysis completed by ecologist Lance Craighead with the Bozeman-based Craighead Institute that examined the importance of keeping the Gallatin Range unfragmented. As part of his report, drawing upon science known to the Forest Service and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, he revealed the following conclusion about human recreational impacts on wildlife:

"Displacement of elk (avoidance of habitat near trails) can extend up to 500 meters (550 yards) from a hiker, beyond 750 meters (820 yards) from horseback riders, and beyond 1500 meters (1,640 yards) from mountain bike and ATV riders according to some studies, while other studies arrived at different distances. Most studies agree however that hikers create the least disturbance, followed by horses, mountain bikes, motorcycles and ATV/ORVs."  Further, Dr. Christopher Servheen, who served nearly four decades as national grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that allowing mountain biking in areas important to grizzlies is dangerous for riders and detrimental to bears. 

Neither the Gallatin Forest Partnership nor the Forest Service nor the mountain biking community have answered or refuted those scientific analyses. 
It wasn't so long ago that scientists worried the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population might be lost.  Only through habitat protection and reducing conflicts with people was the downward population trend reversed.  Ironically, on the Custer-Gallatin National Forest's own webpage a photo of a grizzly bear is featured along with this acknowledgment:  "Bears do not like surprises."  Scientists warn that mountain bikers, because of the travel speeds of pedalers, represent a threat to grizzly habitat security. If enough mountain bikers ride in certain areas, they fear, it could result in displacement of bears.  Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/Yellowstone National Park
It wasn't so long ago that scientists worried the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population might be lost. Only through habitat protection and reducing conflicts with people was the downward population trend reversed. Ironically, on the Custer-Gallatin National Forest's own webpage a photo of a grizzly bear is featured along with this acknowledgment: "Bears do not like surprises." Scientists warn that mountain bikers, because of the travel speeds of pedalers, represent a threat to grizzly habitat security. If enough mountain bikers ride in certain areas, they fear, it could result in displacement of bears. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/Yellowstone National Park
However, the Forest Service, as part of the federal government's push to delist Greater Yellowstone grizzlies from protection under the Endangered Species Act, had to write a special rule that obligated national forests in Greater Yellowstone to manage in such ways that the vital core of essential habitat (which includes the Wild Gallatins) is done in a way that guarantees bear security.

Like Yellowstone Park, which National Geographic magazine called "the beating heart of Greater Yellowstone," the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area is akin to being a vital organ within the Gallatins. It is an indivisible piece of this landscape whose well-being can no more be compromised away, in the name of cutting a deal, than a human would willingly barter away a lung, kidney or colon. 
Like Yellowstone Park, which National Geographic magazine called "the beating heart of Greater Yellowstone," the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area is like a vital organ within the Gallatins. It is an indivisible piece of this landscape whose well-being can no more be compromised away, in the name of cutting a deal, than a human would willingly barter away a lung, kidney or colon. 
The success of true conservation is gauged by the ability to, as ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote, save all of the essential parts, and Wilderness status has proved its worth, over time, to be eminently more effective in protecting wildlife habitat than a wildlife management area subject to the whims of future forest supervisors. The reason that the Gallatin Forest Partnership doesn't want the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study protected as Wilderness and instead as an artificially classified "wildlife management area" isn't to better protect wildness; it's to appease mountain bikers.

° ° ° °

Contrary to perception, the Forest Service is not an agency comprised of nameless, faceless people embedded in a bureaucracy. Rather, it has a staff of professional careerists who likely entered government service with high ideals and wanted to make a positive difference.  As senior bureaucrats, however, many of those individuals now determining the fate of the Wild Gallatins will not be making objective decisions. They may or may not be giving wildlife persistence as much weight as the desire by recreational aspirants to have more access—even if that access comes at a growing cost to wildlife. These bureaucrats carry their own personal biases and their subjective motivations, and may, or may not, be guided by whether their decision is the right long-term thing for the land and the native wildlife that lives there. 

The beauty of the Gallatin Mountains' decision is we will see precisely what kind of values resides in the hearts of those civil servants and we will be able to see if the Gallatin Forest Partnership was right in siding with mountain bikers over the survival of grizzly bears.

It is not a stretch to assume that many of the decision-makers in the Forest Service – and quite understandably—will be thinking more about their own job security and their logical reticence to rile those in positions of political power or even stakeholder groups that themselves have their own motivations for not pursuing the most courageous conservation outcome. This has happened before. Regarding those employed by the Forest Service, American citizens who pay their salaries don't want them to now be meek.
The Custer-Gallatin already has opened West Pine Creek on the west side of Paradise Valley to mountain biking without holding much of a public discussion. Scalia says that if the Forest Service is asked what the cumulative effects of rising recreation use are on the wildlife, the agency often says it doesn't know.  Photo courtesy US Forest Service.
The Custer-Gallatin already has opened West Pine Creek on the west side of Paradise Valley to mountain biking without holding much of a public discussion. Scalia says that if the Forest Service is asked what the cumulative effects of rising recreation use are on the wildlife, the agency often says it doesn't know. Photo courtesy US Forest Service.
I bet that many readers here also don't realize that when Yellowstone was created, some politicians, government officials and citizens rose up in opposition to protecting the lands found in today’s first national park; many of them wanted a much scaled-down version of Yellowstone. They were today's version of the collaborators. Imagine if their wobbly-kneed stands had been adopted? We wouldn’t be talking about how the Greater Yellowstone, whose magnificence is created by the sum of its parts, is a rare shining beacon for wildness in the world. 

Were those architects behind the creation of Yellowstone being "radical"? Were they being "unreasonable"?  Were they being "extreme?" Fortunately, courageous, radical unreasonable legislators and citizens won the day. There presciently peered into the future and because of their actions we revere them now.

I like to highlight an example of how the regret of not acting boldly in one's own time sets up an eternal lament. Though he had the power to demonstrate courage, Lolo National Forest Supervisor Elers Koch, who also served as an assistant regional forester, understood the importance of Wilderness representing a willingness by society to demonstrate self-restraint in its zeal for "taming the frontier."

At a critical moment, Koch gave in to those who embraced collaboration as a means to compromise for less. He could have assured that the Lolo Trail, used for millennia by indigenous people passing through wild country at foot speed, remain free of roadbuilding. As I noted in another writing, Koch opened his classic 1935 essay, “The Passing of the Lolo Trail,” with the haunting lament, “The Lolo Trail is no more.”  

In 20, 30 or 40 years, will we be saying the Wild Gallatins are no more and could it be owed to the fact that the Gallatin Forest Partnership didn't have the will to be braver? 
The Gallatin Forest Partnership is asking that about half of the Wild Gallatins, that qualify for federal Wilderness status, receive that level of protection.  "Imagine if they had been the forces behind the effort to create Yellowstone," Scalia says. "If that had been the case, we would have half of Yellowstone as we know it today."
The Gallatin Forest Partnership is asking that about half of the Wild Gallatins, that qualify for federal Wilderness status, receive that level of protection. "Imagine if they had been the forces behind the effort to create Yellowstone," Scalia says. "If that had been the case, we would have half of Yellowstone as we know it today."
Every generation gets its opportunity to contribute something to the historic conservation legacy of our region. Seldom is the public given a chance to do something momentous, like safeguarding the ancient ecological integrity of a mountain range, but that is what’s before us. And 50 years from now we will be judged by our values, and our actions.  

In our moment of truth, did we look out for the well-being of wildlife?  Did we allow a biological equivalent of Yellowstone to be lost so that one or two factions of outdoor recreationists—including those with a financial stake in promoting more use— had another area to play?  The truth is that ATV riders, motorcyclists and mountain bikers have a lot of other places to play, where the wildlife values as found in the Wild Gallatins are not so high.
In our moment of truth, did we look out for the well-being of wildlife?  Did we allow a biological equivalent of Yellowstone to be lost so that one or two factions of outdoor recreationists—including those with a financial stake in promoting more use— had another area to play?  The truth is that ATV riders, motorcyclists and mountain bikers have a lot of other places to play, where the wildlife values as found in the Wild Gallatins are not so high.
One of the options being considered by the Forest Service is, essentially, the evisceration of the protected core of the Gallatin Range, keeping a portion for Wilderness designation while turning over the rest for recreational spaces and, what I referenced earlier, as a poorly-defined "wildlife management area."  

The Forest Service and the Gallatin Forest Partnership pushing this option have steadfastly avoided public accountability in acknowledging what will be lost, and concerns raised by scientists about the long-term impacts to solitude-seeking wildlife, such as grizzlies and the mountain range’s famous elk herds.  Those groups inexplicably are seeking less than half of the 230,000 acres of wild country that could qualify as Wilderness. Why they aren't pushing for more defies solid explanation. Imagine if the proponents of Yellowstone had proposed and delivered half of today's national park. 

Another option, advanced in the same spirit as those who pushed for the creation of a larger Yellowstone in 1872, is to protect the entire Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, along with another suitable 80,000 roadless acres as Wilderness, under the auspices of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the unequivocally most reliable preservation tool available. 

It cannot be said too loudly or demonstrably that the dominant voice in bartering a “compromise,” the unsighted “collaborative” voice, excluded serious vetting of the pros and cons of a full-blown Wilderness designation, downplaying the science, evading private and public reflection upon the spiritual balm of the place, and did it while claiming they spoke for all parties. 

 ° ° ° °

I am not a bystander. I have poured over the science, conversed with many diverse people and watched as a citizen the impacts of development steadily pinching into the Gallatins from Big Sky on the west and the Paradise-Upper Yellowstone valleys on the east. But more than that, I have had to humbly expand my own thinking because once I was caught in the same mindset of those groups who unwittingly settle for a bad deal when research, courage and work on their part in making the case could yield better long-term protection.

I know well how the compromise position got started because I was in on the early discussions.  I can say with conviction today that it is wrong-headed and short-sighted. Never could I have imagined that members of the local conservation community would actually criticize prospects for a better conservation outcome.

I not so long ago served as the board president of the Montana Wilderness Association, one of three groups pushing for lesser protection as part of the Gallatin Forest Partnership. It isn’t that the young staffers of those organizations aren’t good people; they are. It’s that they do not possess the perspective of what they are needlessly giving up.  Moreover, I've met some people who signed the Gallatin Forest Partnership letter of support but who don't really understand the rationale behind what's being marketed as the best deal possible. 
I not so long ago served as the board president of the Montana Wilderness Association, one of three groups pushing for lesser protection as part of the Gallatin Forest Partnership. It isn’t that the young staffers of those organizations aren’t good people; they are. It’s that they do not possess the perspective of what they are needlessly giving up. 
The open houses hosted by the Forest Service did a poor job of clearly explaining the benefits of more protection and why it matters, long-term for wildlife. In fact, the Forest Service spelled out no strategic plan for dealing with climate change.
Numerous scientific studies suggest that less snowpack in coming decades could have profound consequences for southwest Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Higher-elevation areas, free of significant disturbance by people, are expected to be exceptionally important for wildlife fleeing hotter valleys sprawling with people for cooler conditions in the mountains.  Photo courtesy Phil Knight.
Numerous scientific studies suggest that less snowpack in coming decades could have profound consequences for southwest Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Higher-elevation areas, free of significant disturbance by people, are expected to be exceptionally important for wildlife fleeing hotter valleys sprawling with people for cooler conditions in the mountains. Photo courtesy Phil Knight.
A significant number of us, who understand the history of the region, who recreate, hunt, fish and have businesses in the region, and who have fought hard battles in the past, are stating forcefully that the Gallatin Forest Partnership and the Forest Service need to put forward a better plan for conservation

The only thing stopping them, in the face of new information that should force them to reconsider their own entrenched position, is their own recalcitrant reluctance to admit – to others but maybe more painfully to themselves - that they can do better. 

Over the last 10 to 15 years—and I know, because I was part of the process— Montana has seen a number of deal-makings by certain groups, and self-described local, collaborative decision-making ones. 

The notion that we have already violated too much of the wild earth has been expelled or censored not only from public discourse, but indeed even from the educative efforts of environmental groups who have the financial resources to disrupt the complaisance of the public, a public that no longer knows to dream of Big Wilderness that is as inspiring as Yellowstone. 

The march of “progress” has transformed the dream, while we weren’t looking, into a sort of blinding and impoverishing mania. More later on that, too.

Headwaters Economics did a study showing that for every 100,000 acres of protected public lands there is a corresponding $4000 increase in per capita income. That suggests strongly that Wilderness—central to our wildlands mystique—isn't stifling the economy; it's actually attracting creative entrepreneurs.
Montana contains 94 million acres of land. Of that, 3.5 million are protected as Wilderness. Gratefully, we have two or three – depending on how you count them – of the ten largest Wilderness areas in the lower 48. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness contains 937,000 acres; the Bob Marshall Wilderness contains just over 1 million acres; and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness – whose divide is the Montana-Idaho border – contains over 1.3 million acres. 

By contrast, Colorado, who, like Montana, contains 3.5 million Wilderness acres, has but one Wilderness Area of a half-million acres with other Wilderness Area acreages decreasing starkly from there. And, of course, neither the grizzly bear nor the wolf nor wildlife migrations that exist at the scale of ours calls Colorado home. Sure, there might be more miles of mountain biking trails in Colorado but why are people moving here from Colorado? 

We do indeed have some things Colorado does not. But we are at a very risky crossroads that is not being recognized, as PR has pitched the divving-up compromise as a win-win, as though we can continue to consume or sacrifice more wildland and still be “winning.”

Who and what are left out of any win-win scenario are ecosystem integrity, the well-being of wildlife and those who would speak for its inviolability, those who would challenge the idea of compromising away wildlands that represent the best of the best.  Some of the same people who worked with the late U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf and who fought to get the Absaroka-Beartooth and Lee Metcalf Wilderness Areas on the books, are labeled "extreme" by the young compromisers. What the latter need is a lesson in landscape ecology and conservation biology.
 Some of the same people who worked with the late U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf and who fought to get the Absaroka-Beartooth and Lee Metcalf Wilderness Areas on the books, are labeled "extreme" by the young compromisers. What the latter need is a lesson in landscape ecology and conservation biology.
Uniquely, the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA contains vast lower-elevation land, an exception to the rule in Wilderness Preservation, where the derisively named “rock-and-ice” wilderness prevails. Not only are these lower elevation wildlands a balm to the soul, but they are vital to the rich biodiversity of the range. 

Animals rely upon having access to lower elevations in winter and in summer, when temperatures turn hot, they move higher and follow the green. As ecologists say, such animals are going to need refuges as climate change heats up the valleys, as the footprint of human development proliferates and as recreationists aim to claim more ground for themselves. 

The Forest Service has strong pressure placed upon it to adopt a plan for the Gallatins that would eliminate the Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages from the Wilderness Study Area protections it now has, and render one of the most important wildlife habitats in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—two drainages that hold more diversity than most national parks in the West— a mountain biking mecca. 

Have you seen Moab, Utah lately?  The wildlife populations we have in Greater Yellowstone would wither under that kind of fragmenting and disruptive outdoor recreation. The refrain from the local mountain biking community is to deny the science and it is conjoined by members of the Gallatin Forest Partnership who apparently think it’s the obligation of the wildlife-loving public to sacrifice wildlife habitat to mountain bikers in order to augment the businesses of a few mountain bike retailers and outfitters. 
The Gallatin Mountains provide important summer habitat for elk and the stream drainages function as passageways for migrating elk moving to lower elevations during the winter.  Forested habitat provide crucial cover especially for cow elk with calves.
The Gallatin Mountains provide important summer habitat for elk and the stream drainages function as passageways for migrating elk moving to lower elevations during the winter. Forested habitat provide crucial cover especially for cow elk with calves.
The Rocky Mountain culture and landscapes of today have seen incursive increases in human population in recent decades, accruing ever more rapidly as time has gone on. We need to have an adult conversation about the future. The pressure on the Wild Gallatins from the human population explosion, and the pressure of increasingly incursive recreational mechanics, cannot be overstated.

People have come here for the grandeur of the place, but are beginning now to love it to death. Carving it up, and using it as a recreational playground will ultimately ruin what we love, and perhaps that ultimate ruin is not so very far away. 

Unfortunately, and this is a poorly kept secret, the Forest Service acknowledges that it has been dismally unable to halt illegal blazing of mountain biking trails in the Gallatins; why should we put faith in the agency that it will succeed if it strips away protection from the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn? Here's the truth; if mountain bikers truly recognized and respected the Gallatins, as they claim, they would stop their illegal incursions and criminal trespass. Instead, there are some factions of the mountain biking community that support weakening the Wilderness Act of 1964 to open up Wilderness lands to cyclists. And where cyclists are aggressively pushing their anti-conservation agenda, so too is the growing e-bike industry.

As mountain bikers, hikers, climbers, runners, and motorized recreationists continue to frequent the Gallatin’s wildness, it is incrementally losing that very wildness that makes it a crown jewel.  I love outdoor recreation, but I am alarmed by how we have become frenzied in our wish to recreate, to ride farther, run faster, climb more and more steep walls—such that a maniacal spirit has blinded us to the serenity and sublimity just outside our doors. Alarming is that groups affiliated with the Gallatin Forest Partnership are aiding and abetting the industrialization of outdoor recreation.
I....challenge the Gallatin Forest Partnership and the Forest Service. Let’s subject the  Forest Service, Gallatin Forest Partnership decision-makers and advocates like me to tough questions in a public forum, asking us to reflect on our values, and force us to convince the audience we have given fullest consideration to the points above. 
If mania can be understood as sustaining excitement so as to deny grief’s wolf at the door, we have truly arrived at its juncture. But what if…? Imagine sitting on the deck at your favorite restaurant in Big Sky, gazing across the Gallatin Canyon to the great mountain range above you, Lone Peak at your back. And what you’re seeing is not another place to ride your machines or to bask in your physical, adrenaline-driven prowess.

Imagine instead that it is preserved in its fullness as Wilderness, and you are gazing upon a home for the heart, a place not sullied by our egoistic and maniacal self-interests, but instead left in its sublime form, aweing us, taking us outside ourselves, outside our proud pursuits, and into deep respect and love. This is something those serving leadership positions in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest ought to be pondering; but are they able?

Do we have the “courage of hopelessness” - as Slavoj Žižek called it in a book by that title - required to turn the ship? Does the Wilderness Movement, that gave us the unwhittled down Absaroka-Beartooth, Bob Marshall, and Selway-Bitterroot, have the courage to generate hope by first acknowledging what it has done, how it has unwittingly compromised its principles? 

To do so would hardly make it lose face. As Michel Foucault once put it, can we develop a prerequisite reckoning with how bad things really are, the only position from which we can reasonably begin to chart a new course? 
Can we elect not to cede and carve up the Wild Gallatins? 

Can we face the painful yet glaring fact that enough is enough in terms of giving away wildness that belongs to future generations, and that we are on a headlong, narcissistic course of consume, consume, consume, which only ever ends in depletion? 

Rather than address what’s best through the muddled and unreliable Forest Service public involvement process, which has fallen down in truly informing citizens what’s at stake and which follows in the wake of the failed Gallatin Collaborative, let’s have a moderated debate about what’s best for one of the most important mountain ranges left unprotected in the world. 

I must therefore challenge the Gallatin Forest Partnership and the Forest Service. Let’s invite the best scientists. Let’s examine why the Colorado Rockies are a pale imitation of wildness as we in Greater Yellowstone know it. Let’s discuss development trends. Let’s talk about climate change. Let’s talk about recreation not only in the context of wants and desires in the Gallatin Range but the abundance of recreational opportunity that exists in the region. Let’s discuss why mountain bikers should be able to lay claim to habitat important for grizzly bears that are part of the most iconic population in the world. Let’s subject Forest Service, Gallatin Forest Partnership decision-makers and advocates like me to tough questions, asking us to reflect on our values, produce the science that supports our arguments and force us to convince the audience we have given fullest consideration to the points above. 

We only have one chance to get this right. Surely, if we truly are committed to conservation and protecting the ecological health of Greater Yellowstone, we will not hesitate, but if we do, then you have every reason to question why we cannot face public scrutiny.

Terra and demos—the land and the people— still have a mutually sustaining interdependence here in the Gallatins; indeed, that simple phrase – terra and demos – is a quick and elegant way of invoking a path for sustainable life on the planet, a sustainability practice by which we Montanans still have a chance to live. 

We may have to push people out of their comfort zones to get there, but what we need is a collective ethic of the good of the all, all people, other beings and the whole planet. Terra and demos! A cry for the land and the people, living together, in respect, terra and demos in perpetuity. 

FOR FURTHER READING






Joseph Scalia III
About Joseph Scalia III

Joseph Scalia III, Psya.D. is a practicing psychoanalyst and social critic. He is a former President of the Montana Wilderness Association and the current President of the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance. He's been actively involved in community and conservation causes around southwest Montana for decades. 
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