Federal and state legislators continue to work with unprecedented zeal to transfer public lands and resources to private interests … To stop this sell-off, the public must find its voice and engage.
STORY BY ANTHONTY PAVKOVICH
PHOTOS BY SETH LANGBAUER
Surrounded by friends, I closed my front door on July 10, 2017, laced up my lugged shoes, and jogged away from my home in Bozeman, south toward the Gallatin Range, Yellowstone National Park, and eventually 200 more miles to Red Lodge, Montana: an immense swath of the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Over the course of seven days, I redefined my relationship with the land over high alpine peaks, across vast sagebrush plains, and along countless free-flowing rivers through one of the few intact, wild places left in the Lower 48.
Traveling beside me were two of my closest friends. Zach Altman, the race director for Bozeman Running Company and a passionate trail philosophiser, once said, “I define home to be the places you can reach on foot from your front door.” I invited him along for his humor, deep thought and unwillingness to turn down an adventure. After seven days on the trail, our homes would be a whole lot bigger.
Matching us stride for stride was David Laufenberg, an ecology graduate student at Montana State University and an old friend from the University of Wisconsin. A former educator with the Yellowstone Association, Dave brought tremendous knowledge and wonderfully complex stories about the country we traveled through. During our years of friendship, we had crisscrossed this ecosystem, but this was the first time we embarked on an adventure of this scale.
Stepping back nearly half a year, to the end of January 2017, this trip materialized on the steps of the State Capitol in Helena. Accompanied by more than 1,000 other Montanans, we crammed into the chambers of the Capitol to rally against the sale or transfer of our public lands. The floor and balconies of the rotunda overflowed with citizens representing a variety of user groups: hunters, anglers, hikers, climbers, trail runners and motorized users. Echoing through these stone halls was the thunderous chant, “This land is our land.”
Federal and state legislators continue to work with unprecedented zeal to transfer public lands and resources to private interests, with lobbyists from extractive industries leading the charge. To stop this sell-off, the public must find its voice and engage; call our representatives, participate in planning and actively vote. If not, fragmentation and destruction of our wild landscapes, through urban growth, energy extraction and hard rock mining, will continue.
Searching for a way to turn our anger into action, we left the Capitol and ran through the city to the top of Mount Helena. While pausing and reflecting on the summit, Dave reinforced the idea that our public land “goes away if we don’t protect it; if we don’t show support for it; if we don’t celebrate it.”
“We need to connect with people that are different than us, who think differently than us, who make a living differently than us, and understand them in a meaningful way.”
Jogging south from our city, we left behind the shrinking farm fields and proliferating second homes, and entered the Gallatin Range. This roadless core of snow-capped peaks and high ridgelines is the last major mountain range, bordering Yellowstone National Park, without permanent wilderness protection. Inspiring the public lands rally, legislation originating from the Montana House of Representatives proposed to strip this range—and many others throughout the state—of its wilderness study status.
It was fitting that our run would start here, as this single event inspired our journey.
As we headed farther south into this vulnerable mountain range, the words of Governor Steve Bullock that echoed through the Capitol halls still rang in my ears: “These lands are our heritage!”
What a spectacular heritage it is. Chasing the rising sun up the snowfields of Hyalite Peak, we basked in the early morning light on the summit. Gazing south, the magnificent crest of the Gallatin Range swept toward Yellowstone. This rugged range is uncrossed by roads while still home to wandering grizzly bears, herds of mountain goats and elusive wolverines. From this highpoint, we would run nearly 40 more miles along the spine of the range before dropping into the remote and wild north end of Yellowstone National Park.
Along the border of Yellowstone, this ecosystem is threatened by mining, drilling, logging and rapid urbanization spiraling out from Bozeman, Jackson, Wyoming, and Idaho’s Teton Valley. As increasing pressure is placed on the landscape by the needs of a booming population, we must consider what compromises we are willing to take to protect this wild ecosystem.
“I think, the run itself and the amount of people it took for that to succeed is a good metaphor for how we need to come together on public lands issues and see to it that these lands continue to exist.”
The challenge in today’s polarized political atmosphere is to actively listen and engage with our friends, neighbors and decision makers. While recovering from our run we sat down with Darcie Warden, the Montana conservation coordinator at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and she eloquently shared this vision.
“We need to connect with people that are different than us, who think differently than us, who make a living differently than us, and understand them in a meaningful way,” Warden said.
As the Gallatin Valley continues to grow at one of the fastest rates in the country, we have to prioritize and plan ahead. Gallatin County is now inhabited by nearly 105,000 residents; nearly one in 10 Montanans live here. Using the Census Bureau’s conservatively estimated growth rate of 3 percent, the county’s population will double in less than 25 years.
Finishing each day on the trail, we were joined by many of these residents. Day after long day, friends, neighbors and coworkers had our tents set up and a meal waiting, while engaging in meaningful discussions about the future of our backyards. Reclining with warm food and a cold beer, the conversations around me inspired gratitude for the people who share my home. They all hold a common belief: this wild land deserves protecting, and it takes a determined community to do the work.
A great debt is owed to Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and Montana’s former U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf for setting aside the wild spaces of the Greater Yellowstone. However, not one single acre of Montana has been designated wilderness since the establishment of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in 1983. While less than 4 percent of Montana is wilderness, we are continually challenged to add to this legacy.
Leaving camp well before sunrise, we’d be on trail for 12- plus hours each day. Often, at the edge of exhaustion, moments of awe would sweep over me. The alpenglow on a distant peak, the sound of moving water, or the dew glistening on a ripe huckleberry repeatedly conjured deep feelings of appreciation for the landscape we collectively share.
Crossing the Gallatins, Yellowstone National Park, and the Beartooth Plateau left me stripped, broken and vulnerable. On tender and tired feet, I staggered past the Forest Service boundary and down the road into Red Lodge. Leaving our public lands behind, we were welcomed by the arms of friends and surrounded by the team that selflessly helped us achieve our dream. During our seven days on the trail, there were nearly 40 friends and acquaintances that helped us cover these miles.
After the trip, we met with John Todd, conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association, to share our experiences and observations from the trail and within our community. He shared our consensus: that we don’t have to agree on everything. But, here’s this big chunk of what we think is important that we can advocate for together, for each other, and we can be better because of it. That’s where the important work happens—when you turn those people into friends and allies.
While drinking beers with Zach on my front porch back in Bozeman, he summed up the value of our trip. “Virtually every mile we ran on that trip was [on] public land,” he said. “And, I think, the run itself and the amount of people it took for that to succeed is a good metaphor for how we need to come together on public lands issues and see to it that these lands continue to exist.”
Our public lands will continue to come under threat. There are dangerous mines proposed along Yellowstone’s border, potentially devastating deregulation to our environmental protections undertaken by this presidential administration, and rapid urbanization on the landscape.
We need to collaborate, speak up, and encourage accountability and action, to keep the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, our remarkable common ground, wild and public.
Anthony Pavkovich is a writer, photographer and human-powered adventurer residing along Montana’s border with Yellowstone National Park. His work is inspired by the abundance of wild and public lands surrounding his home.