There is a place northeast of Malta, Montana, and just south of the Canadian border, called Frenchman’s Creek. There’s not much of a creek there, although long ago, in some rainier, ice-melting epoch of atlatl-throwing hunters and thundering bison, there must have been, because there’s a wild and complicated system of breaks there–coulees cut deep by water, with wind scoured badlands, strange hoodoo figures of soft rock carved and sculpted by weather. There’s no place I know that is more out of the way, or where it would be more pure fun and adventure to chase some old toad of a mule deer buck, grown old and wily way out here where only the hardiest hunters threaten him. And he’s there. This is all public land we’re talking about and it’s way out beyond the gumbo roads, out where the mosquitoes whine and the rattlesnakes take the sun on the pale clay banks, the sky goes on forever and any misstep, my friend, and you’ll be in just as much trouble as any careless atlatl thrower of old.
To the east of Frenchman’s and across an odd ridge piled up by ancient glaciers is Bitter Creek. It’s not much to look at either, a trickle of alkali water, smaller, less dramatic breaks, but it’s a last holdout of the native grasses that once covered our American prairies- this country was too hard and thin-soiled for farming, and, uniquely in the northern plains, much of it has never felt the rip of a homesteader’s plow. There are muleys here, too, and they are the hardest traveling mule deer known to science, wandering 65 miles or more up into Canada, dropping south towards the Milk River. Studies show that many of these deer live to very old ages, so they are doing something right, and they possess some simple genius in how to survive and thrive in country that, just this past winter, often appeared as deadly as the surface of Venus.
The federal government, under pressure from elected officials who wouldn’t venture into either of these rugged places for all the campaign money on K-Street, has decided that these and other equally remote public lands will never be protected from the kind of road building, development, and unlimited motorized access that is the norm on less-isolated public lands. In the false name of equal access for all, these last vestiges of our wilderness will be made just like everywhere else.
Like most of our wildest public prairie lands, Frenchman’s and Bitter Creek have economic value beyond just hunting. These federal lands are leased by local ranchers for grazing, and have been, successfully, for decades, and will continue to be. They bring in money and put pounds on cows. But there are few or no known energy resources here. No coal. No reason to build more roads or ATV trails to connect this last place to the system of roads that already accesses an estimated 98% of the landmass of the lower forty-eight states.
There’s simply a carefully cultivated belief among a few, very privileged lawmakers, that roadless lands and wilderness lands are worthless, that a place that requires effort to reach, in this modern world of air conditioning, trophy game farms, pen-raised pheasants, and rampant obesity, is out of style.
I’ll borrow a phrase from my friend and mentor Jim Posewitz (who knows more about how to preserve the future of hunting than anybody I’ve ever known, and who, incidentally, can write what he knows better than I can write anything at all). Pos would say this: there is an evil seed buried here.
There is not a big game hunter in America who does not know that, aside from private land, the best real chance for a hunter to take a trophy bull elk or mule deer lies on roadless public lands like Frenchman’s Creek, or wilderness areas like the Frank Church in Idaho, the Scapegoat in Montana, or any hard-to-access place where ATVs have not yet penetrated. Strictly enforced regulations, very restrictive permits and plenty of enforcement can produce trophy animals even where there is plentiful access–yes–but on the whole, more motorized access ruins trophy hunting, and diminishes fishing. But for the anti-wilderness, anti-roadless public lands movement, none of this matters. Anti-wilderness is a concept most passionately endorsed by those who simply don’t care about wild places–who see no value in them at all, perhaps even fear them, and, especially, by those who already have the means to hunt and fish on private lands. What use is roadless country on public lands to a hunter who leases his own 10,000 acres of prime private mule deer country? To a person who can call up his ranch manager and have the horses or the quads ready at dawn to carry him to a bull that lives undisturbed, deep behind a wall of “No Trespassing” signs?
For me and for so many hunters that I know, roadless public lands are the common man’s only chance to chase big game, to be free to follow up a big bull or muley buck without having a contingent of motorized recreationists roar up the ridge beside us, throttle back the engine, flip up the visor, and whisper, “hey, buddy, you seen any?” For the men and women who despise the protection of roadless lands, our concerns over wild places to hunt are absurd.
For many of these same men and women, steeped in their ideology, the whole concept of public lands is socialism, and these lands should be “divested” or sold off. Since this cannot be achieved yet, the next best thing, following the strict doctrine, is to have these lands be rampantly developed, roaded, their pristine qualities degraded, a kind of incremental, sour grapes approach.
What we are witnessing with the demand to dismiss any new discussion of wilderness or roadless public lands is part of the tremendous move in our country to privatize wildlife and to make the quality hunting and fishing available only to those who can afford to buy land and rivers, lease hunting rights, to bring hunting and fishing into line with the other privileges that are the sole province of the wealthy. That’s how it is in most of the world. Why not here?
Before the end of July, the US Senate will consider H.R. 1581 the so-called Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011 which, if passed, will indeed solve the debate over which of our remaining roadless public lands should be protected for future generations. H.R. 1581 will “release” these lands, as if, by being wild and isolated, these public lands are somehow being kept locked away from us. The sponsors of the bill claim that it will open up more lands for the enjoyment of the public through increasing motorized access. The reality for the sponsors of this bill is that, in this modern world, nothing should be off-limits, nothing should require effort. What is free to everyone, effortless to obtain, has no value. That is exactly how these politicians view undeveloped public land now. How hunters who know and love these places view them does not seem to matter.
Imagine what will happen to these roadless or less-accessible lands, now relatively pristine, with great hunting and fishing, as US population climbs to 450 million, an urbanized nation with no time, fitness or patience for horsepacking or hiking in. Say goodbye to the public lands trophy muley or bull elk or antelope, the fool hens, the gullible native cutthroats, the quiet camp in the coulee. Say hello to an America where the middle class hunter disappears because it’s too expensive to get access, and the public lands where access has been “guaranteed” by bills like H.R. 1581, are no more worth hunting than the old Soft Rock Creek section of state land behind my house in the Bitterroot Valley, which went from a piece of good grazing land, with long hikes through sagebrush and bitterroots, a few muleys, and enough Huns to keep a dog running, to an ATV playground, complete with beer cans, shot up computers and cars and washing machines. Eventually, one sad day in the late 90’s, some folks on the tail end of a long binge drove up there and dumped out the body of a worn-out meth head. The state gave up not long after that, and sold the section off. We lost our place to shoot, our place to walk, our place to hunt, our place to take our children. It only took a very few years, and a moderate uptick in the valley’s population. Any western hunter you want to talk with will be able to tell a similar story (perhaps without the dead body, I don’t know). I’m not saying that we need to start declaring wilderness and roadless designations willy-nilly across the public lands. I am saying that we don’t need politicians to wave their manicured hands and declare the debate over, and declare themselves, their ideology, and their contributors’ the winners.