“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”
— President Theodore Roosevelt
Montana is many things. It is a small town with some very long roads. It is a collection of people, culture, faiths, and beliefs. It is a history of turmoil and peace. It is a collection of towering peaks dotting the skyline and expansive prairie as far as one can see. It is rivers starting in the alpine tundra as drops of rain on shale and ending on our borders as mighty forces that fuel our United States through food and power. It is a place so unique in the lower 48 that the visitors to our great state outnumber our residents 10 to 1 every year to seek a solitude unavailable for most citizens of the world.
As President Roosevelt so eloquently affirmed more than a century ago, the people of Montana have inherited this great place. How we treat this place will leave an indelible mark on the land and in turn those that come. Those that inherit the peaks and the prairies, the rivers and the cathedrals, from us. Our decisions about the land must be for a greater good, because our decisions will be forever forged into the hillsides.
Through a lifetime of conservation work, I’ve watched the people of Montana continue to build society, as people do, and I’ve watched the Smith River wind its way through the canyon, as the river does. The river is, for the most part, the same. It is the people who change. In 1977, the Council on Natural Resources and Development released a study and report on the Smith, its great bounty, and how it must be preserved. Public hearings with concerned Montana citizens were held. The report captures the sentiment at the time for those with an interest in the river: “The testimony given reflected an exceptional general agreement in principle. The primary concern expressed was that the unique quality of the Smith River and its canyon must be preserved.”
The sentiment of the people, and the report, resulted in major conservation measures for the Smith that have withstood the tests of time and kept the river, for the most part, the same. The river meandering through the towering canyon, the bountiful fishery, and the abundant wildlife are still present. The greater lesson here is that the people, and not the river, will make the choice about what the next generation inherits.
The Smith is now in the hands of a new generation, and the decisions it makes will determine the river's fate. I worry deeply about the possibility of a large copper mine on its headwaters, and the permanent changes to the wild landscape, water quality, and recreation that could result. Allowing for large-scale mining on the headwaters of the Smith is a decision you cannot go back on. So many places in Montana have been irreparably damaged by the greed of a few, to the detriment of all. Here, the risks are just too great.
It is my wish that the new generation of Montanans become stewards for the Smith and continue its conservation legacy, leaving the next generation with the river’s bounty, as my generation has done for yours.
Between the peaks and the prairies, far off in the distance, we can see a horizon that we have not yet reached but continue to travel towards. As we cross the mighty Smith, we must be careful to leave it intact. We must show we have been worthy of its good fortune.
Jim Posewitz of Helena spent 32 years with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, leading the agency’s ecological program for 15 years. He then founded Orion the Hunter’s Institute. He served as executive director of the Cinnabar Foundation since its inception in 1983 to 2010. In 2015 the National Wildlife Federation named him “Conservationist of the Year.” Jim is the author of several popular books on the North American wildlife conservation model, including the nationally bestselling Beyond Fair Chase.