It’s apocalyptic in Montana tonight. On the flanks of Emigrant peak, a place where we can usually see the Crazy Mountains 60 miles or so to the north, the skies are orange and grey with smoke. Wildfires are burning in Yellowstone National Park, closing off the south entrance altogether, and threatening the West one. The Yellowstone River has turned belly up like the thousands of dead whitefish that litter its shores, and the Governor has declared it a state of emergency. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is about to delist grizzly bears despite record numbers of grizzlies killed by poachers and automobiles last year , and allow the states to sell trophy licenses to further decimate a population endangered by climate change, while visitors to our national parks and wild areas, continue to do unbelievably dumb things because they can’t recognize actual nature when confronted with it. And through the smoke, drive the RVs. Rig after rig after rig, hauling overstuffed Americans around the country entombed with their carpet and reclining chairs and big-screen TVs, burning fossil fuels as they drag ancillary vehicles behind them.
I’m usually fairly immune to environmentalist gloom, but tonight, despite writing this from the cabin porch, the kind of spot I dreamed of for decades only to find myself gobsmacked by the good luck of getting to live here, tonight in the smoke and the heat and the apocalyptic light, I’m on the edge of despair.
I got into it today with an out-of-work fishing guide, who was ranting about irrigation continuing when the river is closed. The fish kill is exacerbated by low water, he was saying. Maybe there’d be more water if they weren’t draining the tributaries to spray on alfalfa fields. He’s not wrong, but he apparently didn’t know anything about water rights. Water rights, I tried telling him, are entirely separated by history and law from natural resource protection. The river has no rights. The river, its fish, its beauty, its value as an economic driver of the economy in this county (a county for those of you not in Montana, about the size of the state of Delaware) — none of those things have any bearing on water rights. None of those things are considered “beneficial use” — for which water rights are claimed on a historic first-come, first-get, basis.
The fish have no rights to water. The cattle and the ranchers who grow hay to feed cattle have rights, but the fish have no rights.
(Neither do the Native Americans, as evidenced by the current protests at Standing Rock. But in Livingston, fish matter more than Native Americans, as they do in most of the country).
He wasn’t wrong, we would have more water in the river if the ranchers weren’t irrigating. But what got to me wasn’t even his ignorance about such a basic fact of Western historical and political life. What got me was, again, the notion of beneficial use. It’s defined as beneficial to humans, particularly humans involved in the agriculture, timber and mining industries. Along with Manifest Destiny, it was the excuse for white people claiming vast swathes of western land, this notion that by “improving” it for extractive use, they could claim ownership. This is the idea the Bundy clan and their ilk were defending when they occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge last winter — the notion that the land exists for human use, that it exists solely for human use. This is not a fringe belief in the West (or, in the East, as evinced when an environmentalist writer friend from the Carolinas posted on Facebook about how mountain lions are showing up in Tennessee, and even his friends commented that they wanted them all killed, because they scared them). While the Bundys taking over the wildlife refuge because they believe setting aside any land for wildlife threatens their historic claims, there are plenty of folks out here who believe that while wildlife is important, it’s only really important for the uses we put it to. These are the folks who think, for example, that the point of the Endangered Species Act is not to save species from extinction because biodiversity is important in and of itself, but that the act exists to bring species back in order that we can hunt them. The Grizzly Bear for example. There are plenty of people commenting all over the intertubes this very minute who think the entire point of protecting the Grizzly all these years was so that we could hunt it again. (To be clear, I have no gripe with hunting or fishing for meat on a non-industrial scale. I’d almost always rather eat clean organic game than even the nicest grassfed local domestic meat. My gripe is with trophy hunting of predator species. And no, I’m not buying your “scientific game management” arguments, because if this essay has any idea at its core, its that “the wild” is, a self-regulating system that is not in need of our interference).
In essence, my guide friend wasn’t being any less anthropocentric than the ranchers or the guys who want to hunt trophy grizzlies. He wanted the water in the river, not for the fish themselves, but so he and his buddies and the rich guys who hire them could get back to pestering the fish for fun, as if nothing had changed.
While I am more than happy to see the outdoor recreation and tourism industries surpass the old extractive mining and timber interests economically, and while the fact that they’re catching up to agriculture is going to make for some interesting legislative opportunities, I’d also like to take a moment to point out that outdoor recreation and tourism are not without environmental impact. We’ve literally flogged the Yellowstone into a state of exhaustion this summer.
So perhaps while we’re in this enforced time out, it might be time to take stock. It might be time to rethink the consumerist mentality we’ve had toward the river — that it exists primarily for our pleasure, and that all our fishing, and boating, and rafting, and SUP paddling, and throwing balls for the dogs, and driving trucks and trailers on 20 and 30 and 40 mile river shuttles are not extractive uses. Maybe we could use a little of that most un-American trait, restraint.
And maybe we could go back to some of our core writers on the subject — Aldo Leopold comes to mind, who noted that: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Because what I’m seeing off this cabin porch is a disaster, and one of our own making. We’re can’t continue the way we have been. We have to change.
Also published on Medium.