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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
May 13 2016

The Power of Public Lands

Former MWA president and Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame inductee reflects on present state of conservation


A few weeks ago, on a beautiful spring day, about 200 people from around the state joined Senator Jon Tester at a campground on Hauser Lake to welcome Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to Montana. Sec. Jewell spoke of the value of our public lands and the need to properly invest in them. Her words no doubt resonated in a state that so profoundly cherishes an outdoor way of life.

Montanans love their public lands. I would even say that our identity as a people is tied to public lands. Where else can the majority of us hike, hunt, fish, ski, mountain bike, canoe, and ride horses? Where else but on public lands can we do so many of the activities that define who we are as Montanans?

My husband Chuck and I moved to Montana 40 years ago and raised our children here. We chose Montana because of the opportunity we found here to expose our kids to the natural world, something that is absolutely essential for the health and well-being of not just children, but adults as well. Public lands provide that connection to the natural world.

That’s why I volunteer so much of my time and energy with Montana Wilderness Association in helping keep public lands in public hands. We work unceasingly, with great grassroots effort, to educate people about the importance of protecting our epic landscape. Knowing the importance of positive communication and interaction, we get on the ground and work with communities, federal and state agencies, and with elected officials in making sure that we pass on our public lands legacy to future generations.

I was in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2014 and heard Secretary Jewell speak at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. It was an exciting time for all of us, thinking of the 110 million acres of our public land that Congress has declared protected from extraction and exploitation. America is unique in that we have realized that those who come after us need the same opportunities for spiritual renewal in our wilderness that we have enjoyed for centuries. Montanans know this better than anyone.

The days of frivolously destroying our wildlife and wildlands are, I believe, nearing an end.

I believe this because of the recent successes we’ve had on the Rocky Mountain Front. In 2014, thanks to Senator Tester, we passed the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, giving permanent protection to a 100-mile stretch of this iconic landscape.

I also believe because of what happened last September, when about 100 people showed up at a meeting in Choteau to speak out against an oil and gas lease in Hall Creek area of the Badger-Two Medicine, the last stretch of the Rocky Mountain Front not yet permanently protected. Members of the Blackfeet Nation spoke eloquently about the Badger as their sacred land, as a place where they practice their spiritual ceremonies and vision quests.

Sec. Jewell and the Department of Interior have, thankfully, listened to the Blackfeet, and in March canceled the Hall Creek lease. There are still 17 more oil and gas leases that need to be cancelled in the Badger, but I’m confident the Department of Interior will get the job done. We can then turn our attention towards permanent protection of this sacred place.

Protecting public lands isn’t just about protecting beautiful scenery. It’s about us, about who we are and who we want to be. And it’s hard, almost impossible, to imagine ourselves apart from the public lands that make our way of life possible.

- Gerry Jennings, former MWA president & Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame inductee