For nine years my husband and I have led an annual group hike into the Terry Badlands and Natural Bridges, located just northwest of Terry. The hike draws people from all over the state and region. We have had people from the area who have never been to the Terry Badlands and from as far away as New York, California, England, and even Israel.
Forty-five thousand acres of the Terry Badlands is today protected as a wilderness study area. As such, this special place is in jeopardy of being developed and completely open to motorized use. Without holding one public meeting or town hall to discuss his proposal, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte introduced a bill on March 2 to strip protection from the Terry Badlands and 23 other wilderness study areas totaling more than 240,000 acres. He also introduced a companion bill to Sen. Steve Daines’ S. 2206, which would strip protection from the Big Snowies, Middle Fork Judith, West Pioneers, Blue Joint, and Sapphires Wilderness Study Areas – nearly a half million acres in all.
Taken together, these two bills Gianforte introduced would represent the largest loss of protected public land in Montana’s history.
State Rep. Bill Harris was incorrect in his guest opinion, writing that we can’t fight fires in WSAs; there is no rule that prevents the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service from doing so. Harris called on Daines to unprotect all WSAs in the state, which amounts to a million acres.
Introducing people to this landscape has been a thrill, especially when they catch first sight of Calypso Peak and the long stretch of grasslands and sandstone formations. “I’ve heard so much about this area for so many years…and now I’m here!” said an older woman from Miles City. A boy ran up to me with several round sandstone rocks in his hand. “What made these rocks so round?” This is the best classroom a teacher could ever hope for!
On one hike a woman from Billings told me her story as we walked together. She had been experiencing trauma in her life which led to emotional distress and the inability to leave her house. “A year ago I would not have been able to do this. But this …” she said with a sweep of her hand across the landscape, “is what is making me feel alive again!”
I stood on a ridge in the Terry Badlands with a woman from England, who, after taking in the ocean of land and sky said, “I can see why she stayed.” She was referring to her relative, Evelyn Cameron, a woman from England who came to Terry in 1889 and became a photographer and diarist and whose story came to life in the book by Donna Lucey, “Photographing Montana” and the award winning Montana PBS documentary, “A Worthy Life”.
One of the defining characteristics of these public lands that have protection status is the silence of the place. It is the unseen yet powerful force that many of my hikers have mentioned and responded to as they stand still and listen — to the sound of wind in the trees or grass, the shrill call of a red-tail hawk, the tremolo song of sandhill cranes as they fly high overhead.
After each hike I feel the satisfaction of bringing awareness not to just this particular WSA but to the all the WSAs sprinkled throughout the state. When we put our hiking boots on the ground and experience these landscapes, we learn their stories written in the layers of sandstone or in the formation of a perfectly round rock. We discover the stories of plants that live and thrive in harsh climates, we learn the history of a place and we make our own stories. We feel connected; we discover our common roots. These public lands are worthy of continued management and protection; they are our legacy for future generations.
If you believe, like I do, that Montanans should have a say in how our wilderness study areas are be managed in the long term and our congressional delegation should find a balanced, bipartisan resolution for all of our wilderness study areas, join me at ourlandourlegacy.org.