As Google Earth flies, it's five miles and change from the Echo Lake Café in the Flathead Valley, one of Montana's great little restaurants, up to a parking area at a trailhead that leads to Jewel Basin. Down here in the valley, we're at 3,000 feet. Up where the gravel road dead-ends, you're looking at 5,700 feet. If you make it all the way to the top of 7,500-foot-high Mount Aeneas, you'll be rubbing elbows with some top-of-the-world views, not to mention mule deer and mountain goats.
We're talking about almost a mile of elevation change, yet the amazing thing is that once you leave the valley floor, all that land stretching on seemingly forever belongs to you and me and all of our fellow Americans. It doesn't matter whether you live here in Montana, or in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico or New Jersey. All that acreage, which is administered on our behalf by the U.S. Forest Service, is ours. We can roam where we choose, we can hike, we can fish the lakes and pick fresh huckleberries for lunch and pitch our tents under all that Big Sky. We're free to wander to our heart's content on public land, and for a lot of Americans, that's an incredible thing.
Whether you actually visit these places in person—go hiking in Jewel Basin or hunt in western Montana's backcountry—is almost beside the point. You still own those places, and you benefit from them, either directly or indirectly, because of all the clean air, clean water and wildlife, not to mention the billions of dollars, that our federal lands inject, year in and year out, into our economy. That's a pretty incredible dividend, paid on the principal, or make that the principle, of our public lands.
I'd go so far as to say that here in Montana and across the West, our public lands, which make up 50 percent or more of our states, equate to freedom. Let's make that freedom and prosperity, because almost everything of substance, from our Western heritage to our economy to our recreation, flows from the bounty of our public lands.
That is why it's so disappointing that 51 U.S. senators, every single one of them entrusted with our nation's well-being, recently cast a vote that could help destroy the Westone that could turn over America's public lands to multinational corporations, lock out hunters and hikers, and shift control of our timber, our grazing rights, and our minerals, along with the very lifeblood of the West—our water—to profiteers and foreign interests.
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
That's right. In an almost entirely party-line vote, 51 U.S. senators just voted in favor of Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's budget amendment to sell off our public lands, with only three Republicans voting no. Colorado's Cory Gardner was the lone Western Republican to vote no, joining all of the Western Democrats.
The senators won't tell you what transferring these lands out of federal management really means. No, they'll stand in front of their microphones, puffed up and proud, and state that they're for smaller government and state's rights and local control. But once you make your way through the obligatory smoke and mirrors, you come to the truth: This is about power, plunder and money. It's about water, which is the source of all that power here in the West. And it's about the fact that an awful lot of folks back in Washington want to privatize our federal lands.
Montana writer Hal Herring called the vote "an attempt to re-create our country, to vanquish forever the notion that we citizens can hold anything in common. It's a new paradigm, where the majority of Americans are landless subjects with little recourse in the courts or political process."
Now we have an important decision to make. Do we turn our back on this grand experiment in democracy? Do we accept that the future will always be smaller and shabbier than the past? Do we resign ourselves to a world where our freedoms are locked away behind "No Trespassing" and "Keep Out" signs? Or will we choose to fight for what's ours?
Because that's the real question. Will we give up? Or will we as Western citizens stand up and defend the America that was passed down from our forefathers? It brings to mind a question that Elizabeth Willing Powel asked Benjamin Franklin following the Constitutional Convention in 1787. "Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?"
Franklin's response still rings true today: "A republic, if you can keep it."
Todd Tanner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Bigfork and is an outdoor writer and the president of Conservation Hawks, a nonprofit that defends hunting and angling.