I once watched three tawny mountain lions glide down a snow-dusted hillside. The closest jumped up on a fallen log perhaps 40 feet away and then, without so much as a sound, leaped off and disappeared into the depths of the forest. Another time, an entire family of otters swam over to investigate my fly casting as I waded the icy currents of a beautiful Montana stream. Then there was the September day we floated by a bull moose with antlers like massive, misshapen canoe paddles, and the October afternoon that the dogs pointed a covey of sharp-tailed grouse beneath the majestic cliffs of the Rocky Mountain Front, and the August morning when my friends back in camp started banging on pots and pans to let me know that a grizzly had crossed the river and was headed my way.
These might sound like recollections from a bygone era before the advent of iPads and smart phones, but they’re not. Nor are they unique. Sportsmen here in the West have incredible experiences with elk and mule deer, with golden eagles and osprey, with salmon and black bears and cutthroat trout. When you live where snow-capped mountains brush the sky and the pungent scent of sage fills the air - and where public lands offer almost infinite recreational possibilities - the stories truly can flow like rivers.
There’s something special about America; about a country where our vast public lands guarantee us a place to fish, hunt and wander to our heart’s content. We’re blessed in a way that other men and women, on other continents, are not. I can’t begin to tell you how lucky we are to have millions of acres of federal land to roam; to have true, unabridged freedom stretched out before us like an open map. It’s a wondrous thing.
Lately, though, it seems as if our luck is starting to run out.
There’s a battle taking place over our public lands. On one side, we have the fishermen, hunters, hikers, bikers, horseback riders, campers, skiers, climbers, snowmobilers, ranchers, loggers, and various & sundry other citizens who work or recreate on ground hallowed by those three sacred words: “We the People …”
On the other side are the rapacious profiteers who hope to monetize, and then benefit from, our vast federal resources. They’ve formed an unholy alliance with the Cliven Bundy-worshipping partisans who believe the concept of “public” anything is a horrible idea - and together they’re working to privatize as much federal land as possible.
When President Trump won the election in 2016, it seemed as if a majority of America’s 39.5 million sportsmen and women were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he’d told Field & Stream magazine in a widely-publicized interview that he supported the idea of public lands. Then, when Trump appointed self-proclaimed Theodore Roosevelt aficionado Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior, many anglers and hunters relaxed even further. Why, they wondered, should we worry about a politician who’d pledged his allegiance to our federal lands?
Sadly, though, it turns out the trust we placed in Trump and Zinke, and in the GOP-controlled Congress, was ill-advised. The Trump administration has removed federal land protections, dismissed the guiding hand of science, and prioritized energy development over recreational uses. Meanwhile, the Trump EPA, under Scott Pruitt, has worked systematically to eliminate clean water and clean energy regulations as it helps the dangerous - and potentially disastrous - Pebble Mine to rise, Lazarus-like, from the grave. At the same time, the GOP-controlled House Committee on Natural Resources is using federal funds to attack respected outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which has been a fierce advocate for the national monuments where so many Americans hunt, fish and hike.
It’s bad enough that the Trump administration and GOP members of Congress are taking every opportunity to decimate our public lands, which are the backbone of the $373.7 billion outdoor recreation economy. It’s even worse that the very people we entrusted with safeguarding our outdoor traditions and our sporting legacy are abusing that trust. We can forgive a Secretary of the Interior who puts his fishing reel on backwards. We can not forgive an administration, or a congress, that trashes our public lands and throws sportsmen under the bus.