It’s 930 miles from Whitefish, Montana to Fruita, Colorado.  We left, as has become habit, around 800pm.  730 is close enough to Little Bear’s bedtime to ensure a tranquil transition to sleep, but M forgot her snowboots and he had to go back.  All night drives south may be a habit, but even with this being the fourth such in a year the departure seems un-natural.  I drove two hours to Missoula, where M took over and I slept until the lights of Dillon, and took over for her a little north of Lima.  I made it through the heart of the night and Idaho all the way to Tremonton before cratering spectacularly.  M resumed driving and I patted LB back to sleep, getting there first myself, and we both woke up in haze, the sun still hidden, conveniently next to the McDonalds in Lehi, Utah.  The playplace got LB back in a good mood, coffee did the same for me, and it took two breaks for walking and much backseat toy action before he succumbed to naptime not far from I-70.  Him staying asleep as we gassed up in Green River confirmed that fortune shone upon us, as by noon we were in our future home, walking in the park and having lunch.

Little Bear acquitted himself well over the next six days, house hunting, filing rental paperwork, meeting soon-to-be not-strangers at my new job, living in a hotel and then camping along the scenic trip home.  We’ve built a good life for him here in Montana, but every thing points to our promised new life in Colorado being more relaxed, more fulfilling, and happier.  Returning the a dark October of record rainfall only enhances the promise of desert sun.


M and I met and fell in love in Iowa, but our early years in Utah and Arizona built the strength we’ve put to such good use over the last 15 months of parenting.  Returning to a land of harsh blue skies, pinons and junipers, soft canyons, and ugly badlands feels correct.  It’s the right place for us, and the right place for the rapidly growing kiddo.  Hopefully he’ll quickly learn about cactus, his initial (repeated) meeting with goatheads along the banks of the Green River doesn’t give too much cause for optimism.

Needless to say I never intended to become part of “the industry” but given that my parents met in an outdoor store, and how much time I’ve put into this hobby over the past half decade, this change in careers is pretty damn rewarding.  Nothing but two weeks, some delicate case transfers at my old job, and a whole lot of packing (and a sheep hunt) between us and saying a long-term, maybe permanent hello to the Corolla of western states.  It almost cannot happen soon enough.  We have big plans.

Don’t lie for happiness

Adventure Journal is a website that on most days I love to hate, for its click baitness and lifestyleish vacuity, but fairly often it publishes an essay of real profundity, which most of you simply must read.  This is one of those.



Social media is dangerous.  Not so much because on the internet money and editing can buy representations of places which are so fake they build expectations which will likely never be met, but because too much time looking at the curated (i.e. fake) pictures other folks present of their lives can reset ones internal compass so thoroughly that a life of infinite resignation becomes almost inevitable.  So do not, like the courageous Ms. Purington, pretend that your life is something that it is not.  This tells you, almost without exception, that you want things to do other than what they are.  Do not waste time trying to embrace things that you do not actually like; one of the higher forms on enlightenment (and thus, happiness) is not being able to identify those pursuits which will give your life meaning, it is being able to cast off without regret those which will not.

For the last six months Saturdays have been mine and Little Bears alone, while M works.  I’ve learned the hard way that mountain biking on even remotely challenging trails is out, and I’ve mostly succeeded in giving up any regret and loving the fire road rides with plenty of walking breaks along the way (top photo).  The warm weather and low water of late summer has allowed a few one-parent packraft journeys, though keeping him from wandering off while I rig things is complicated (bottom photo) and prudence restricts us to very mellow water and short routes.

Even so, I catch myself not just only portraying and capturing (in pixels and in memories) the most palatable moments, but easily forgetting the moments of stress, lost sleep, and general existential despair which seems to go hand and hand with the first few years of parenting.  I get angry at myself for this, as it’s the first step down becoming part of a world whose portrayal of parenting is criminally rosy and optimistic.

At the same time, there is little point in excessive self-abnegation, or indeed navel gazing of any kind, positive or negative.  Which is why I’m inclined to let videos like the above stand, largely hate-free.  On the one hand it’s a cheap, short, reductive portrayal of what was surely a profound backpacking trip.  (They seem to have gone through a week or two after Skurka and I, and in the opposite direction.)  On the other it captures the profundity of that remarkable traverse very well, and the presentation is as direct and precious as it is inherently incomplete.

So be careful out there, the world of representation is a hazardous one.

The next empire of grandeur

When it comes to National Parks my enthusiasm and sentimentality knows few bounds, and thus it made for a delightful day last weekend when I both woke up with a stomachache and found that PBS had put Burns’ “National Parks” up for free viewing, in their entirety. My curiosity over the years has been such that I’ve almost purchased them outright. Too cheap to do so, I watched all ten hours without significant break, and being unable to eat much without pain was hardly a distraction.

IMG_0724I have no desire to cultivate what would create an even-handed sensibility about this documentary, or the National Parks generally. Like many of the commentators in the film, I got religion in the parks as a young boy, and while the intimacy and perspective of age have given me many grounds for cynicism, to this day I find it easy to hold these opposed ideals in hand, simultaneously and without distress. As the film quotes Steven Mather, first director of the NPS, the parks are “a cheap way to make better citizens.” All the roads and restrooms and lines and publicity get people into the parks who would seldom otherwise go to nature. They are shown the door to a wild world, and it is up to the individual to see and then walk through it.

One subject Burns et al dance around but do not directly touch is the extent to which racism continues to shape National Park visitation. A survey in 2008/2009 found that white folks make up the majority of park visitors, significantly beyond their percentage within the general population of the United States.  It would take an exhaustive historiography to give an accurate picture of why, it is too easy to cast blame on individuals in retrospect, but their can be little argument that as of today minorities feel less welcome in National Parks.  This is of concern because the US population is becoming less white, and while National Park visitation continues to climb, in my opinion average visitor engagement has become ever more brief and potentially shallow in the last 30 years.*  While Burns gives several, crucial examples of individuals who both acted significantly for a given park and never visited it in person, if “National Parks” shows nothing else it gives evidence that in general engagement with the parks correlates directly with them being well funded and protected.


That historiography of race and the US National Parks would likely mention the ways that in the 19th century, when the idea of national parks was created, that creation was driven by the affluent, who were the only humans with the luxury of fetishizing rather than conquering wild nature.  It would probably also mention how hiking, camping, and backpacking remain the sort of esoteric, expensive, potentially uncomfortable, and somewhat perverse kind of vacation which still only appeals to those whose daily lives are suffused so thoroughly in comfort that being cold and having pine needles in ones hair is a pleasant novelty.  Digging into specific examples, be they from 1890 or 2016, makes this portrayal less certain, but I still believe it to be at base an accurate explanation.

I also believe, to make a statement deeply coloured by privilege, that in moments of conflict social justice has to take a back seat to environmentalism.  It matter little who is around after, if the world saved for them is so truncated.  I think we can view “the world” as socially constructed and intersubjectively determined (which in the public mind is a fait accompli, culture wars notwithstanding) while still acknowledging that there is a world beyond us, whose influence on creation is unknowable because of our own limited place within it, and experience/cognition of it.  Hume comes together with Muir here:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.**

We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.***

I’m skipping a bunch of steps and alluding to some big words here, and the plain english  of it all is that there will always be a tension within National Parks between education and preservation, and between the present and future.  And in my experience when one finds such tension and paradox drawn like a tightrope, that tightrope is as close to truth as we’ll ever get.


* 1 in 68 US Citizens visited Yellowstone in 2004; 1 in 2,700 in 1904.  1 in 41 Yellowstone visitors in 1979 spent at least one night in the backcountry; in 2015 it was 1 in 91.

** A Treatise of Human Nature,

*** Life and Letters of John Muir, June 9, 1872 letter to Miss Catharine Merrill.

Hayduke, the movie


State land, Montana.

On his most recent episode of Hunt Talk Radio Randy Newberg got into an interesting local controversy, which as they discuss is just the latest iteration of an issue which has in Montana persisted and grown worse in recent decades.  Public land in the western US has been under assault since the early 20th century, and while it’s hard to make the case that current events are any more egregious than previous pushes to do away with these large tracts, that the current push takes place in the age of trophy ranches and an ever growing population in western states does make the situation today worthy of particular attention.

Once you have the background Newberg’s podcast is worth a listen.  It is also worth noting that he and his guest go out of their way to emphasize that by supporting Montanas stream access law they are in no way supporting the impingement of private land rights.  Montana’s stream access law, in brief, allows public access from any state or county road to any navigable waterway at any crossing.  That waterway can then be floated or waded on any water or land below the ordinary high water mark.  You can even camp, so long as you’re 500 yards from any dwelling.  Most western states are more restrictive.

The most significant provision in Montana law is the road-access provision, which is by most standards a reasonable infringement of private property rights, but is an infringement nonetheless.  Because of common sense, as well as historical precedent, conventional wisdom views this as an acceptable trace of socialism in land policy.  Along of course, with the public ownership of large portions of many states.  Most other forms of socialism are rhetorical poison.

This of course is why Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang has not yet been made into a film, in spite of multiple attempts over the decades since it was published.  It’s a more radical book than most realize, as it not only challenges the original formulation in the Declaration of Independence, but implicitly comes out against it.  There are some things, perhaps a number of things, which private land holders ought not be able to do.  Restricting access to publish land is one of them.  Montana’s stream access law is a good role model.  Another example, not yet put into place anywhere, would be required easements to any public land encircled by private holdings.  A third, which I got close to but did not mentioned last week, would be a ban on selling landowner hunting tags for any more than their retail cost.

In places like Utah large landowners are given tags to hunt their land, which seems logical enough.  Some of these ranches are in highly desirable zones, places where (as discussed here) math would suggest most will never be able to hunt.  Landowner tags in Utah (and elsewhere) can go for tens of thousands of dollars, often making the property valuable for no other reason.

The analogy is precise.  Someone buying a ranch which lies on both sides of a county road should not be able to close off stream access.  Someone buying a ranch which surrounds a parcel of state or federal land should not be able to turn said land into their own de facto kings woods by granting permission to only a select few.  Taking a step further, the state should not be able to build bridges and roads in certain places, as doing so inexorably and permanently (in human terms) ruins them for others.

Did Hayduke have a right to blow those bridges up?  It is not an easy question to answer, because it sticks right in the heart of a fat contradiction in the middle of American history.

Senate Amendment 838

R0001564 Amendment No. 838 (Purpose: To establish a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to the disposal of certain Federal land) At the appropriate place, insert the following: SEC. ___. SPENDING-NEUTRAL RESERVE FUND RELATING TO THE DISPOSAL OF CERTAIN FEDERAL LAND.

The Chairman of the Committee on the Budget of the Senate may revise the allocations of a committee or committees, aggregates, and other appropriate levels in this resolution for one or more bills, joint resolutions, amendments, amendments between the Houses, motions, or conference reports relating to initiatives to sell or transfer to, or exchange with, a State or local government any Federal land that is not within the boundaries of a National Park, National Preserve, or National Monument, by the amounts provided in such legislation for those purposes, provided that such legislation would not raise new revenue and would not increase the deficit over either the period of the total of fiscal years 2016 through 2020 or the period of the total of fiscal years 2016 through 2025.


At the end of last month the US Senate passed the above, 51-49.  My understanding is that as a budget amendment it holds no force nor compels any action, but given the larger social context the vote has attracted a lot of attention, binding or no.  In the near sense it all started in Utah, with a law voted in over 3 years ago which “provides a framework for transferring public lands into state ownership.”  To keep a long story simple, there is compelling evidence that the Utah law is intended to make those federal lands private, and that the interests behind the Utah effort are those responsible for the continued national prominence of the issue, and the recent senate budget amendment. This concerns me deeply, and to that end I’ve written the Montana congressional delegation, especially junior senator Steve Daines, who voted for said amendment after specifically stating on multiple occasions that he did not support the transfer of federal lands to the states.  In response to two different letters I received the following letter (twice, identical both times), which has been edited for length.


Dear Mr. Chenault,

Thank you for contacting me to express your opposition to a recent amendment to the Senate budget resolution related to federal lands. As a fifth generation Montanan, please know that I do not support the transfer of federal public lands to state ownership or the sale of public lands that would reduce Montana’s access to these lands.

Senate Amendment No. 838, sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), does not sell, transfer, or exchange any federal lands. Such action would require the enactment of separate legislation. With that said, states and local governments and Indian Tribes routinely come to Congress to obtain land transfers or conveyances to be used for economic development or to address checker-boarded estates or split estates, a common problem for communities in Montana… The Murkowski Amendment could help facilitate a solution to that matter and enable other exchanges, sales or transfers with states or local governments. These policies are often used to craft balanced public lands measures that strengthen conservation, facilitate economic development, and empower states, local and tribal governments. In fact, these types of exchanges were vital to enacting the 2014 comprehensive lands package, which included the most significant Montana conservation measures in more than 30 years. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act protected nearly 700,000 acres in Montana-400,000 acres along the Flathead River in addition to about 270,000 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front, including 67,000 acres of new wilderness. The 2014 lands package was a historic agreement for Montana and would not have occurred without other land exchanges being enacted alongside the landmark conservation measures. For Montana, the package included the Northern Cheyenne Lands Act, which transferred over 1,500 federally-controlled acres into trust for that Tribe. Another example of the kind of land exchange that could be facilitated by the Murkowski Amendment includes a land transfer in 1996 used to prevent a gold mine from being constructed outside of Yellowstone National Park near Cooke City in return for the state of Montana receiving Otter Creek coal tracts. It is important to note that budget rules threatened the completion of the 2014 lands package. As a result, the Murkowski amendment is designed to safeguard future transfers or exchanges from budgetary hurdles, and to protect the ability of Congress to enact landmark conservation measures like the North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. As a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, please know I will keep your concerns in mind should the committee consider related legislation and continue to fight to protect public lands in Montana…


Steve Daines


I responded to the senator, thanking him for his letter and his work on the North Fork and Rocky Mountain front acts, expressing skepticism about that the amendment would be limited to the actions he outlined, and requesting that he make a greater effort to make his objection to federal land transfers plain to Montanans. Beyond that, I’m not sure what to make of the whole mess.  The Utah effort can be traced quite directly to a debate which has been simmering since the late 1800s and the rush of western statehood; was it constitutional for the federal government to establish management and “ownership” of so much land?  For example, 86% of Nevada is managed by various federal agencies.  There are many practical arguments to be made on every side, but in the end I think the debate comes down to ideology, which explains its remarkable endurance.  I come down on the side of federalism, and think that the history of these lands being owned by the whole citizenry provides more than enough evidence as to why they should remain in federal custody.

In any case, it is not an issue which is going to go away any time soon.

Keep it public

I’ve been putting this writing off for months, because putting fingers to keys and pixels to ‘net admits that there are things which need to be said about keeping public lands public. Today, there absolutely are, and that admission is in itself a sad statement.


I remain acutely skeptical that the current movement to transfer federal lands into state custody will ever come to anything substantive, but the opponents are sure taking the whole mess seriously, which has produced more than enough dialogue to frame the debate.

Sadly, this has mostly taken place on economic terms. The heirs of the Sagebrush Rebellion maintain that state governments and local towns are loosing potential revenue due to federal complacency, while the heirs of Roosevelt trot out vague statistics to demonstrate why states would not be able to shoulder the management burden.

US federal land.agencies.svg
US federal land.agencies” by National Atlas of the United States, “All Federal and Indian Lands“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, all this discussion is very much besides the point. Federal land was, starting in the late 1800s and more rapidly in the first quarter of the 20th century, set aside specifically against obvious economic motivations. Preservation was the word when the Adirondacks and Yosemite became state parks, and Yellowstone a national park. Long-term economic arguments about how tourism is superior to extractive industries only followed. That tourism is the most economically use of public lands is a fait accompli, as demonstrated by the states-rights rhetoric being restricted to only wanting a little more logging/mining/roads while maintaining or increasing tourist infrastructure. The problem is that these pro-states arguments are almost identical to those made a century ago. It’s an obscure and uncommon thesis, but the conservation/preservation, public lands ownership and use debate made the Republican party what it is today, and the zenith of that debate between 1910 and 1912 is when the GOP ceased to be the party of Lincoln and started to become the party of Reagan.

TR left the White House in 1908, denying himself a certain third term. Given that he had assumed office after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt had a strong claim to a second elective term, as well as the sort of popularity which would have guaranteed him a win. At the national convention, Henry Cabot Lodge had to intervene multiple times to prevent TR from being nominated by acclamation. William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, was TRs hand-picked successor, in no small part because Roosevelt thought Taft the most likely to continue his policies, Unfortunately for Taft, once elected he proved too malleable or indifferent to stand up to industry, and supported either outright or by default significant erosions of TRs conservation work. Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, and made moves to undo the designation of the enormous and visionary Tongass National Forest. TR valued these things, and the ideals they represented, so much that he was compelled to run against Taft in 1912. He failed to win the Republican nomination, and as a Bull Moose candidate in the general election outperformed Taft, splitting the vote and guaranteeing the victory of Woodrow Wilson.

The presidents who followed Wilson have mixed records on conservation, but the overarching narrative is universally in support of conservation and the value of federal lands. National Parks came to be called America’s best idea, Alaska still has a robust salmon fishery, old growth forest still exists in pockets of most western states, and free or cheap opportunities for recreation of all types could as of 2015 occupy many lifetimes. There are many particulars which could be improved, especially wildfire management, but it’s hard to see arguments against the current regime of federal land management as anything other than variations on Cliven Bundy; ahistorical, myopic, and selfish.

Folks are hesitant to say this out loud, and even more hesitant to state what I see as the central point in the debate: the states are too hasty and subject to the winds of public opinion to be good custodians of public land. This is especially true of states like Montana where term limits and biannual legislative sessions have maintained a tradition of true citizen legislators. Like the US Senate, experiencing federal land management in real time can be frustrating, but is the least-worst option. Ecosystems dwell in extra-human time scales, and thus government must be stretched a fair bit to suit it. Land conservation has in the past century been one of the largest success stories in North America. The pushback against it is probably the last kick before the death of a 20th century view about the unalloyed preeminence of the western human, an ideology about which conservation only tells a small part. Insofar as it’s a coherent entity, I can’t take it seriously, but it would be foolish to underestimate it’s advocates.

The legacy of the 21st century will be rewilding littoral areas, and cultivating a less adversarial relationship with the wild which will make it easier for predators to reassimilate. But it will not come easily or with good grace. Be patient and, where necessary, make your voice heard. In the western states that probably means now.

Fourth of July Creek

[Warning: The following contains spoilers.]

Smith Henderson gets it.  There are a number of very good things about Henderson’s novel Fourth of July Creek, but by far the most significant is that his portrayal of northwestern Montana, and the dark insular social landscape which to this day lurks close to the surface, is absolutely dead-on.  As a social worker in NW Montana for the last four years, I’ve given up discussing details of my job with just about everyone I know or meet.  Most wouldn’t believe a lot of it if I told them, and I wasn’t surprised to hear, in an interview with NPRs Robin Young, that Henderson choose to dial back some of the details around which he built his book.  The gasoline huffing runaway who ends up in Pine Hills (youth prison) after being sexually abused by his drug addicted mother and beat up by his social worker, and the paranoid man who retreats to starving in the woods after his wife commits uncomprehensible violence have two things in common; they’re both characters in Fourth of July Creek, and it is entirely probable that their real life equivalents are alive in this place right now.

You need a good reason to live west of the mountains and north of the bastion of civilization that is Missoula.  Whenever I meet someone, either for work or socially, I ask why they ended up here.  The winters are dark and foggy, the weather unpredictable year-round, and the brightest months of the summer overrun with tourists who most often act like a different species.  Trappings of culture and conveniences like multiple places to buy pants and shoes are modest, especially compared to the traffic.  And that’s in the Flathead valley where I live, the most populous and brightest region of northwestern Montana.  Here we’re surrounded by darkly timbered tendrils of the Pacific Northwest, but have the harsh sun, wind, and open spaces of the Continental Divide almost within reach.

Northwest Montana proper is further west, in Lincoln County, where most of Henderson’s novel is set.  Lincoln is given over entirely to deep river valleys and thick forests, broken only very rarely by bare alpine basins and small towns.  While the population of Flathead County has tripled since 1960, that of Lincoln has not even grown 10%, and suffered a significant dip during the 70s and 80s (the novel is set in 1981) as the logging and mining upon which the areas population came into being saw a vast reduction in scope and productivity.

IMG_0437The central Yaak, looking east-northeast towards the Whitefish Range, Eureka, and Canada.  This is country Jeremiah Pearl, anti-hero of Fourth of July Creek, knew well.

This heart of northwest Montana is a place at once huge and small.  It takes a discerning soul and more time than most are willing to give to see the differences between the monolithically green ridges, and even from a high place the long views mainly show you just how much you can’t see.  As Henderson emphasizes again and again, it is a good place to hide from the world.

Fourth of July Creek’s protagonist, Pete Snow, has a good reason for living in the lower Yaak, near the fictional town of Tenmile (a proxy for Libby, the county seat).  His marriage fell apart under circumstances he ultimately chose to not control, so he applied to be transferred up to what remains one of the least desirable postings at Child and Family Services.  There he can live in a small cabin, do enough work to fill his hours and satisfy his conscience, commune with other men who have made similar choices (be they loggers of judges), and rarely have to answer questions.

Pete’s worldview is shaken when a mysterious boy, obviously feral in a somewhat pre-modern sense of the term, appears at the local school.  Social workers are in the book, and remain today, fixers when no one else knows what to do, and thus Pete is called in to do the more complicated things, beyond medicating the boys malnutrition.  And thus the reader is drawn into the life of Jeremiah Pearl and his son Benjamin.  Pearl is a northwest Montana legend, someone who did what many of the hard-bitten, taciturn, independent men (and the full characters are almost all men) of the region have thought  of but always shrank away from: going fully away from society and living all the way in the woods.  Having a cabin with an outhouse and no running water, and perhaps doing some spring deer poaching, is one thing.  Giving up your truck, whiskey, and deliberately chosen ties to society is quite another.  People come to northwest Montana, as both Pete and Jeremiah did initially, to place the world at a controllable distance.  To refute it entirely, as Pearl and his son do, is a categorically different step, and one worthy of inevitable suspicion.  If you’re in a bar in Missoula and can explain your residence in Lincoln County as having to do with a dedication to hunting, fishing, skiing, and writing, it is a comprehensible, even admirable, choice, if still eccentric.  Some underlying wound is nonetheless supposed to fully explicate the anti-social behavior.  Pete, and the other men who inhabit Henderson’s Tenmile, recognize and accept antisocial choices, but still Pearl’s life is one which makes them uneasy.

In the end, the novel confirms this suspicion.  Pearl believes in the end of the world, and has prepared for it with huts full of venison and ammo, and a life designed to place him beyond the knowledge of governments.  He may have started down this path out of unique or idiosyncratic beliefs, but was in the end driven to fully inhabit it by family trauma so horrific that by comparison rationality is a frail and abstract construct.  Pearl’s wife, whom he loved dearly despite mental illness, and all of their children but one contract an illness from ice chipped out of neighbors freezer and made into snocones.  Rather than go back into civilization and seek medical attention, Pearl’s wife shoots her children, and then herself.

Awful things happen in the world everyday; more often than we realize they happen in our own cities and neighborhoods.  American society is tasked with balancing respect for adult decision-making, even choices seemingly made with self-destruction in mind, with enforcing rules which will contain society and enable it to move forward into future generations.  Pete Snow lives this contradiction.  His alcoholism affects his job performance, to varying degrees, but his is still competent and well intentioned, and most importantly willing and capable of bringing consistency to a job where that trait is both important and usually in short supply.  He is forced to grapple with the paradoxes of his profession throughout the novel.  He breaks the rules, letting the aforementioned gas huffing abuse victim free to live with friend he made on the street, and then letting Pearl and his son go as well.  Pete sees himself in both of these cases, he is forced to when his own daughter runs away and eventually becomes embroiled in street life as a prostitute.  Pete is only one small step, one routine twist of fate, away from sliding into criminality himself, from becoming one of the people whom he is paid by the state to police.  He is far from the best equiped to deal with the situations in which he finds himself by novel’s end, but neither is he the worst.  How far does he succeed?  Henderson properly leaves the reader questioning, and for that, and writing a novel which resonated so well with me personally, I thank him.


“We know that America cannot be made strong by leadership which reacts only to the needs or the irritations or the frustrations of the moment. True leadership must provide for the next decade and not merely the next day.”

-President Lyndon Johnson, upon signing the Wilderness Act


Somehow it felt appropriate to contemplate the Wilderness Act yesterday. All the valedictory pronouncements made last week, on the 50th anniversary of its signing, seemed a bit soupy until I looked at them through the filter of our last, shameful, decade of American history.

I was in History of Early Modern Philosophy at Grinnell College when news of the 9/11 attacks went public. I remember trying to check CNNs website, the first occasion I had ever done so, and it being down. I recall Allen Schrift’s Cultural Critique seminar that afternoon, at which he made attendance optional, and where we had a discussion about the appropriate federal reaction(s), and the utility of punishment and/or vengeance.

I do not think it is a contentious statement to say that as a country, most of our reactions to the 9/11 attack have made us weaker, both intra and inter nationally. The debacle of Bush foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is axiomatic, and the role that being at war playing in getting George W a second term which in turn exacerbated other problems (such as partisanship and the Great Recession) is only incrementally more debatable.

Less spectacular, but more widely pernicious, have been things like increased airport and border security, and more overt and aggressive counter-terrorism and intelligence work. While certain measures in these areas were surely needed, it has always seemed that the majority of their intended effect was internal reassurance. Rather than feeling like a country at war via public calls for enlistment and national sacrifice, we the US spent the 00s feeling like a country at war because of the Orwellian elements which became ever more pervasive in our daily lives. The result is that we Americans do not trust ourselves as much, do not trust the world as much, and have spent the last six years with a President who has wasted most of his considerable potential attempting, with minimal success, to fix a mess his predecessor created.

The US needs to become accustomed to a different position on the world stage. More importantly, we the citizens therein need to become content with a very different national self-image. The current narrative of American Exceptionalism assumes that our position as best-in-the-world GDP during the 1770s, built on New England mercantilism, and our position as best-in-the-world GDP in the 1950s, built on post WWII internationalism, went uninterrupted in the centuries between. Instead, both periods were aberrations, twists of global-historical fate which came into being based on many things, only a few of which were subject to direct, national control. The contemporary view of national self-worth built directly upon a narrow, currency-based idea of capitalism will not take us to places we want to go over the next half-century. A collective, national, unconscious rebellion against the inevitable move towards something else goes a long way towards explaining the Bush myopia, as well as the ever-more virulent anti-Obamaism (racial integration being as good a proxy as any for categorical cultural change in the USA).

How then might the US be exception at the end of this century? Or, to put the question in a less jingoistic fashion, how might a more productive and efficacious national identity be built upon something which is essential and unique to America?


The answer is, rather obviously, wilderness.

America is unique in that we are a large country in a temperate (read: economically desirable) part of the world which has both not despoilt all it’s wild lands and already passed the peak of industrialization. We made it through the 30s doing plenty of damage (building roads across Glacier NP and southern Utah; for example, both previously roadless), but survived that and the interstate highway boom of he 1950s with plenty of the west intact and roadless, or at least unpaved.

It is safe to say that none of the great roadless areas of the American west will ever see roads in them. It is also safe to say that the US is uniquely placed to be an international role model, for China above all, in how to build a sustainable economy and culture around leaving the greater world alone, insofar as extractive use is concerned. The Wilderness Act is a relatively rare law epitomizing future thinking, and because of this it is indeed special and worth celebrating.

So hopefully in the next 50 years America will be able to get a good start on radically redefining ourselves. Success and happiness will have to become more nuanced ideas. On a family level, net population increases and gaudy consumption will have to become shameful, on their way to being legislated out of existence without many or any de jure measures. We will have to see ourselves as exceptional, and as world leaders, in ways much less strident and much more humble.

And where better place to learn ones proper size than wilderness? Nowhere. Happy birthday Wilderness Act; now help save us.

The Front, for the future

Last year I wrote about the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, a piece of legislation still stuck in the middle of the legislative process. I still think the bill is a great example of what I wrote about yesterday, a compromise which doesn’t sacrifice the future for the present, or vice versa. There’s a great short documentary making the circuit this summer, which you can watch online, and is worth 20 of your minutes:

All of this is particularly relevant due to the recent discussions about giving federal lands over to the states. There are many cutpoints for discussion on that issue, but one is more significant than any other: while wild places may be located in Montana, Utah, and so forth, they are also in the United States, and their significance to and for the country as a whole cannot be overstated. Everyone in the country should have, as direct as is practicable, a say in their administration.

More than anything, the Front Act would take a symbolically important step towards acknowledging this, and admitting that it is important for our future.

40 years of living with things that might eat us

IMG_0280Bear shit, Glacier National Park.

The Endangered Species Act turned 40 this past weekend. With two full wolf hunting seasons almost done, rumblings of Grizzly delisting making headlines, and varied efforts at Lake Trout suppression, it is a very good time to sit in Montana and ask what sort of progress has been made over four decades.

The purpose of the ESA is clear in the original language: “…to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved…” Foundational motivations are less clear. Plants and animals with “…esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people…” are mentioned, with no further specificity. As is probably fitting, the law is clear on what, when, and how, with the why left for unending debate.

But the why is important.  It helps explain why the conflict over the ESA remains so vociferous, and perhaps why the act was necessary in the first place.

I don’t think anything in the history of the ESA, not even Spotted Owls, approaches the level of conflict wolf reintroduction has engendered.  The rhetoric is both ridiculous and sublime, my favorite being that the Canadian Wolves released in Yellowstone and Idaho are somehow a different, more rapacious species which will not mirror the behavior of the extirpated, native wolves.  Among other things, this line of thought ignores the Glacier/Bob populations, who reintroduced themselves in the early 1980s, and are equally blamed for eating all the elk, as well as sheep and calves when they get the chance.  The whole affair, now almost half as old as the ESA itself, reveals nothing so clearly as the intractibility of human and wolf antipathy.  This dislike has deep historical roots, and is profoundly irrationa, in the non-perjorative sense of being based more on things which will improbably occur than things which are likely and routine.

Historical evidence suggests that the British are to blame.  Wolves went extinct due to human predation in Scotland in the mid-1600s, an extraordinary and ignominious achievement which took place contemporaneous with the Puritan colonization.  The view of wolves as close enoguh to humans, in their social habits especially, and yet enough of a frightening adversary, in that they eat livestock, seems to have taken an early and deep hold on the British psyche.  Accounts of wolf encounters in colonial New England are rife with anthromorphopization which explained wolf predation on both wild and domestic animals as originating out of a rapacious, lustful nature.  The Freudian cliche concerning Puritanical projection is probably to convenient to be accurate, but regradless of the reason why the early English colonists hatred of wolves is inarguable.  And hatred is the precise word.

Fast forward two and half centuries and similar mindsets were at work with the Bureau of Biological Survey, and their successful quest to eliminate wolves from the western United States.  For much of the first decades of the 20th century big game hunting (for elk, deer, sheep, and goats; bison already being extinct) was banned in Colorado, not because of wolf and bear predation, because logging, grazing, and overhunting had reduced populations to minute levels, and backed them into only the most rugged areas of the state.  This exacerbated wolf, bear and coyote predation of livestock, given that in many areas they had little else to eat.  Indeed it seems that coyote colonization east of the Mississippi, generally accepted as starting in the 1930s, was correlated with (and perhaps caused by) shockingly successful attempts to decimate their natural food sources (read: deer and prarie dogs).  There is little evidence to suggest that wild predation of livestock in the American West was ever particularly severe before food stress made such behavior inevitable.  The necessity of “predator control” was ideologically necessary, with any practical justification only following and indeed created by the very act of systematically killing predators to make way for livestock.

This mindset is still with us.  Cattle ranchers want wolves premptively removed from nearby areas, rather than (for example) releasing calves to summer range later and fatter, an approach proven to drastically reduce wild predation.  Hunters throughout the west blame the wolves for lowered elk harvest rates, ignoring any roll population cycles or altered behavior patterns might play.  Earlier this month, Idaho hired a hunter to go into the Frank Church and kill wolves specifically so they might eat fewer elk over the winter.

This is the implicit base of the ESA, and the reason it is so hated and so vital.  The meaning of conservation has yet to mature beyond directly evidenced benefit to humans.  Any benefit measured in decades is unintelligable, to say nothing of those values we might not be yet wise enough to even see, let alone understand.  Until our valuation of fellow animals and plants has gone beyond the merely subjective, the ESA will need to stay.