The Sage and Sapling: Young and old alike search for Montana’s answers

Finding things to be thankful for when you live in Montana is pretty easy. All we have to do is look around at our magnificent state, the soaring peaks, rushing rivers, deep forests and diverse wildlife to realize our blessings are abundant. But in many ways, now would be a good time to be thankful for those who have shaped and are shaping the future of the Big Sky state. And in that regard, this little tale of the Sage and Sapling comes to mind.

Some weeks back I had the opportunity to sit down with one of Montana’s great fishing legends and one of my long-time friends, Bud Lilly. Having lived in Montana his entire life and spent much of it fishing our world famous blue ribbon trout streams, Lilly brings the better part of a century of experience to his perspective. I wanted to know what changes Lilly has seen, what challenges he sees ahead of us, and what solutions he could perhaps envision to meet those challenges.

Over the course of a couple hours Lilly ran through the gamut, recalling his early days in the Gallatin Valley, his move into the fly-fishing business, the struggles to end the practice of planting hatchery trout in the state’s rivers and finally, the successful efforts to pass seminal environmental laws more than 30 years ago.

But lately, the old sage confides, changes are happening faster than ever before. “Things were fairly predictable for a long time, but now with global warming, a lot of things are changing and we need to recognize how they will affect our wild trout and rivers,” he says.

Without hesitation, Lilly jumps to the primary question faced by all of those who have long advocated for trout, asking, “Where are we going to get the water to maintain flows to keep our trout populations healthy?”

That question fell like a stone on the table between us, because the answer is sobering. The entire Upper Missouri Basin is closed to all new appropriation of surface waters while demand continues to grow. What’s more, due to thousands of wells tapping the valley aquifers, the groundwater levels are now dropping even as thousands of new septic systems discharge into them.

In the end, Lilly concludes, “We are going to have to change our thinking” if we’re going to pass on the real treasures of Montana to future generations.

Less than a week after my chat with the old sage, a young man with barely a quarter century under his belt garnered the most votes of any candidate to become the youngest member of the Helena City Commission. At half the age of the mayor and other commissioners, Matt Elsaesser brings the perspective of those future generations to the thorny problems facing us. And as luck and skill would have it, he’s already built an impressive résumé pertinent to the task.

While still an undergraduate student at Carroll College, Elsaesser started a nonprofit group called SAVE—Students Advocating to Value the Environment. Dissatisfied with Helena’s municipal recycling program, Matt and his fellow students began their own recycling effort, driving an old truck to area businesses, picking up loads of cardboard, holding special plastic and electronic waste recycling events, and literally steering hundreds of tons of materials from the landfill to beneficial

Elsaesser runs the truck, known as the “SAVE-mobile” on homemade biodiesel and has crisscrossed the state on two tours to showcase the recycled fuel to our far-flung populace. Faced with what he perceived to be policy roadblocks to the use of biodiesel, he and his cohorts took off their work gloves and put on their suits to lobby the last legislature for the changes they see as necessary to ensure the future of their generation.

While others complained of the vicious partisan nature of the session, Elsaesser and his young friends ignored party politics and concentrated on accomplishing their goals. Not only did they pass the biodiesel bill, but they also pushed through the nation’s most advanced electric car legislation and a measure that allows new construction or renovations to install gray water systems.

While anyone would be proud of these accomplishments, it is the gray water measure that exactly addresses Bud Lilly’s concern for future water supplies while illustrating the necessary change in thinking he

Under the provisions of the new law it will now be possible to conserve significant amounts of water through reuse. Simply put, a gray water system allows homeowners to turn a valve that shuttles waste water from showers and laundry into a sub-irrigation system rather than to the septic system or municipal sewage treatment plant. The result reduces both the amount of water necessary for maintaining trees, gardens and lawns and the load on treatment facilities.

As he did with the biodiesel tours, Elsaesser has taken his gray water solution on the road, recently teaming up with Missoula’s Gray Water Guerrillas in an exhibit to demonstrate how to build and operate one in your own home. The producers of a commercial gray water system were so impressed with Elsaesser’s efforts they donated one to SAVE be given away in a raffle (which you can sign up for online at

On the day the United Nation’s latest and most dire global warming report was released, young Elsaesser came over in an electric car the manufacturers decided to loan him for a couple weeks. It’s specially designed for Montana, with a whopping 18 horsepower engine that will take it up to 35 mph for in-town use.

As we quietly drove the little vehicle away, I thought about how old sages like Bud Lilly rose to meet the challenges of their time and how young people like Matt Elsaesser were carrying on that great Montana tradition today—and once again appreciated just how much we Montanans have for which to give thanks.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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