Saturday, July 20, 2024

The lost lesson of stewardship

by Dorothy Bradley
| July 11, 2024 12:00 AM

Reprinted from The Daily Montanan, July 3

A new – and old – accusation keeps popping up these days. “You are just one of those Montanans who wants to come to paradise, and once you have your little piece of it, just lock the gate behind you. How can you justify that?”

Well, quite easily. I was raised and imbued with the doctrine of “stewardship.” Actually, it was the second commandment in our family, right after, “Honor your father and mother.”

It mandated us to pass forward our spot on this planet in as good or better condition than we received it. That doctrine applied to all activities whether it was packing your garbage out of mountain campsites, or never littering the highway with candy wrappers. Seems hard to believe, but both were new lessons in those days. They were among many rules we had to institute because of the increasing use of the land.

Today, every time I see green algae in the West Gallatin River, high mountain trails trenched beyond walkability, or plastic dog poop bags stacked up the walls of public latrines, I know our generation is falling short.

Our habits and rules have not kept up with human numbers, increasing demands, and more impactful toys. Most serious, we have failed to imbue any sense of accountability for the wreckage we are leaving in our wake.

When discussing the fragility of the grizzly population, one person was overheard saying, “Well I sure hope I get mine before they are all gone.”

And now today, when we contemplate the reality of climate change, it is clear that what is at risk is not just our little piece of the planet, but the planet itself. That is stretching our stewardship beyond all bounds.

In any case, it is easy to see that our obligation to institute some restraints and hold ourselves to high standards is not akin to shutting and locking the gate. There is not enough of the Gallatin Canyon or Valley to house every desiring resident or accommodate every recreational adventurer.

The bigger question is whether there is enough to maintain critical animal populations with sufficient space to survive and multiply?

I was telling a cousin in upstate New York about our effort to provide maximum protection for maximum acreage in the Greater Yellowstone, and she said, “Oh – to just have wilderness like you do!”

We who are among the fortunate to live here must shoulder the responsibility to protect the last of this unique ecosystem, not just for us, but for the whole country, and for the future, and all this in the face of climate change. I am certain we all want some of this openness and wildness still here for our great-grandchildren – for them, but as important, for the creatures who live here, and whose existence as a species is in our hands. We are the last ones who will have this decision to make – what to protect and what to release.

This is a weighty decision, but we still have time to think.

So long as we enforce the protections for the Wilderness Study Areas in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, which were established by our forefathers and mothers when they set them aside almost 50 years ago, we can take a little more time to make these forever decisions. The recent proposal of the Gallatin Forest Partnership to divvy up the lands largely to recreational uses and release the leftovers, fails to seriously consider the accelerating and devastating impacts of climate change.

It is critical that we assess the future of these lands through the climate lens and grapple with the new information that is now at our fingertips (the Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment).

Wildlife populations are going to have to move around more just to survive. Confining them to ever smaller islands is the beginning of their end.

We are all deeply grateful that past generations left us extraordinary protected areas right here in our homeland – Yellowstone National Park, Lee Metcalf Wilderness, the free-flowing Yellowstone River. Those beautiful gifts came with their greatest dedication and unrelenting work.

It is not just their gifts which we must embrace, but also their work ethic, as we try to do justice to the final decisions they entrusted in our hands.

Dorothy Bradley was elected to the Montana Legislature at 23 years old and served a total of 16 years. She went on to run for governor as a Democrat in 1992. She is now a retired attorney living in Clyde Park. This column first appeared in the Daily Montanan,