Public Lands Give us a Sense of Place and Purpose
Making the case for national monuments from Montana to Maine
I laid on my back, feeling the dirt and grass cradle my tired body, and letting the natural sounds of the landscape wash over me. It was my first time in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. I’d never seen such a majestic river corridor in my life. The way the cliff rose up from the river bed to meet the ever-expansive sky gave new meaning to the name, Big Sky Country. Never ending coulees are a hallmark of the Breaks and the native wildlife know the secret ways of those dark ripples in the landscape. Here a few drops of rain can quickly take the dusty terrain from cracked and dry, to what some call, “gumbo” in a matter of seconds.
As impressive as the landscape is, the wildlife rivals its splendor. Hunters, hikers, birdwatchers, photographers, and anglers all gather in the Breaks in hopes of catching a glimpse of the native residents: elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, mule deer, forty-eight fish species, and dozens of bird species, including sage grouse. It was this abundance of wildlife that brought me to the Breaks.
As a new bowhunter, I had desperately tried to harvest an elk during the previous season to no avail. I dedicated myself to preparation in hopes that this season would yield a harvest. I quickly discovered, however, that the Breaks would be both a classroom and a proving ground for me. The opportunities to call, stalk, and observe elk was plentiful and I made the most of those opportunities.
On the second to last day of our hunt, my buddy called an elk into 20 yards. All I remember was that my heart was jackhammering and a panicky fog was settling over my mind. I mustered a moment of clarity and focused on one thought, “pull back.” I can see in my mind’s eye the arrow in flight, the impact as it found it’s mark, and my elk jolt in surprise. I knew that my arrow would do the job it was intended to do. Harvesting my first archery elk was a surreal experience. Doing it with the Upper Missouri River Breaks as a backdrop was transformative for me as a hunter and a conservationist. I wanted to protect this landscape so that other could have similar experiences.
“As a Montanan, I rejoiced to hear that the Breaks had been removed from the list. And yet, my heart aches for those who still in a state of uncertainty as monuments are still under review in their states. I still feel a sense of fear because even though they may not be in my state, those public lands are part of my heritage…”
Protecting habitat that is good for elk, deer, moose, antelope, birds, and fish, also protects vital natural resources, such as headwaters, that man needs for survival and reprieve. Protecting the Upper Missouri River Breaks means that a corridor through which Lewis and Clark traveled will remain virtually unchanged. The monument connects local Montanans and visitors to the historical heritage that has been bequeathed to them by their ancestors.
And yet, our public lands are currently under the single greatest coordinated attack they have undergone. Were it from some coalition of fringe groups that do not see the value in public lands, that would be one thing. However, this attack is from within. It is from the guardian and trustee of our heritage. Originally twenty-seven monuments were designated for review and in the last month, four of the twenty-seven monuments have been taken off Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s list, including The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
As a Montanan, I rejoiced to hear that the Breaks had been removed from the list. And yet, my heart aches for those who still in a state of uncertainty as monuments are still under review in their states. I still feel a sense of fear because even though they may not be in my state, those public lands are part of my heritage just as if I was from Utah, California, Nevada, or any of the other states where our public lands are being threatened.
As I reflect on my first experience in the Missouri River Breaks, the love I feel for that place, and the fear I feel that it might be stripped from me and millions of other Americans, I wonder what I would say to Secretary Zinke were he sitting with me as I write this.
I believe I would remind him that this isn’t about him, it isn’t about this administration, and it’s really not even about me. I would ask him to remember that, “Our duty to the whole…bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations” (Theodore Roosevelt). I would remind him that these public lands are the only heritage that many Americans will ever receive. That, without them, we will bear a generation without a sense of place or purpose; however, with public lands to offer, we give every American the opportunity for a rich life.
You can help by sending a message to the US Interior Department. Losing one national monument that protects our public lands and waters is one too many.
Marcus Strange is the Central Montana Field Representative for the Montana Wildlife Federation. He is a native Pennsylvania and converted Montanan.
Prior to joining the Montana Wildlife Federation, Marcus worked for the State of Montana and has a degree in Political Science.
In his free time, Marcus runs his own outdoor media brand, Urban to Country. Marcus has been married to his best friend Anna for eight years.
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