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Oct 26 2018

Public Lands Saved My Life

To a returning veteran, public land access isn't a political game. It's an essential part of the healing process.

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I met up with Jesse near Wolf Creek, on a Friday night. He had driven up from his home base near Bozeman with a friend, and I’d made my way over from Missoula. We linked up on the highway about two miles before our campsite, below the Holter Lake Dam. It was dark by the time we pulled in, so we started a campfire in the dark and put on a pot of soup for dinner. We’d come to Wolf Creek to fish, and to talk.

Around the campfire and on the water, conversations and quiet have space to wander, to grow, to fall down rabbit holes and dig their way back to daylight. 

I should tell you that Jesse, in addition to being a fine fisherman, is an artist and an Iraq War veteran. He was working on his MFA in ceramics at the University of Iowa on September 11, 2001, shortly after which his Army Reserve unit was called up, re-trained from artillery to field medics, and deployed. 

While on deployment, Jesse treated American casualties on a regular basis, early in the war as the insurgency in Iraq emerged. Now, he works for a Montana organization that provides a retreat setting for service members and their families, and allows returning veterans the opportunity to access neighboring public land in central Montana.

His involvement in this work is personal. Ask Jesse, and he’ll tell you: public lands saved my life. 

As an Iraq War veteran myself, I understand what he means. Stories of pulling trout from crystalline streams and mountain lakes provided an escape from the desert I’d been deployed to, and after two tours of duty in the Middle East, time alone on Montana’s wild rivers and in her wild ranges were essential to my re-adjustment to civilian life. 

Between stories of time spent overseas and in Montana’s wild places, Jesse mentioned that he occasionally sees Senator Steve Daines around Bozeman. He told me that he has a standardized way of engaging the senator, and other elected officials, when he meets them on the street. Jesse walks up confidently, the way a boss might approach an employee. He introduces himself. And he states in no uncertain terms that access to public lands saved his life.

I understand, from our conversations, what Jesse means by access to public lands: 

  • As a fisherman, he believes stream access should be open, not limited by private property owners whose holdings surround public waters.
  • As a hiker and hunter, he believes wild and public places should be accessible and public easements shouldn’t be gated off, as has happened in the Crazy Mountains.
  • As a Montanan and American, he believes public land should not be sold, privatized, or otherwise transferred out of public ownership.  

He’ll also tell you how simply standing on Table Mountain after a steep climb, amidst the majesty of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, can decidedly alter brain chemistry for the better. He’ll tell you how protecting the headwaters of the rivers he loves protects everything downstream, from wildlife habitat to sources of clean drinking water for our communities. 

He’ll tell you how elected officials are currently using the language of public land access to undercut public land protections across the state. Despite efforts to pull the wool over the eyes of Montanans, these efforts are attempts to roll back the protections that safeguard the wild public lands veterans like Jesse depend on to recover, to reconnect, and to heal. 

To be clear, protecting public access does not mean initiating the largest rollback of public land protections in the state’s history. It’s unfortunate that elected officials are framing their talking points to dishonestly represent the concerns of Montanans like Jesse.

For many returning veterans, public lands aren’t a luxury and access isn’t political. Sitting around a campfire, casting from a drift boat, feeling the wind on your face and a bite in the air - these are important parts of healing, and they can literally save lives. They saved Jesse’s. 

The fishing was slow that weekend, and bitterly cold at times. But that only made the campfire at the end of the day more enjoyable. The weather sharpened our senses, and reinforced the beauty of the place that sustained us. We each hooked into some big fish, rising in pods to dries above the large weedy bathtubs that pocket the Missouri. We parted ways feeling whole and happy, and looking forward to more time on our public lands.

- Anson Nygaard, MWA public lands field organizer

P.S. If you're a veteran and believe that Montanans deserve a say in how our public lands are managed, please join me in signing this open letter opposing Daines' and Gianforte’s bills. Let's show our lawmakers just who these lands belong to.