Jim Posewitz


Eighty-nine years ago a six-month old baby was left at the orphanage in Twin Bridges, Montana.

In late October of this year the Montana media noted the passing of that baby, Tony Schoonen.

Then, ten days later, in early November, Montana newspapers could hardly restrain their excitement while reporting “Montana’s Recreation Economy Tops Wyoming,” generating $2.4 billion to our economy in 2017 compared to Wyoming’s $1.6 billion.

What binds those stories together is what that young lad, dropped off at the orphanage, grew up to be and then do for Montana. Tony Schoonen spent the major part of his life as one of Montana’s most visionary and effective fish and wildlife conservation advocates. When an analysis of our recreation economy was done by the U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and Headwaters Economics of Bozeman they reported that in 2017 Montana’s recreation economy was near the top nationally, second only to balmy Hawaii.

The economists did take note of the difference in state laws and regulations that firmly anchor public access to Montana recreational amenities absent in Wyoming. In Montana the people have access granting full public use of most rivers between the high water marks. In Wyoming if you wade, drop your boat’s anchor on a stream bed, or pause for lunch on a sandbar you could be busted for trespassing.

The differences in stream access are only the tip of the iceberg. Montana has been physically protecting stream channels since 1963 when a law was passed preventing channels from being bulldozed into roadside ditches. Tony Schoonen and associates from Butte were there to lobby that beginning, The law was the first of its kind in the nation.

In the many reviews of Tony’s life now being carried in sporting and environmental journals detailing the whole list, it is clear that he was truly a conservation giant and he made a huge difference in the Montana now passed to our custody.

Tony was born on a homestead near Hinsdale, Montana, the ninth of ten children. At age six months the orphanage at Twin Bridges took him in and cared for him through his first 13 years. At age 13, a local Big Hole River ranch family took him in as a promising "hand". They cared for him and he served them well.

Tony earned university degrees in agricultural education and a master science in education. Professionally, he served as school principal in both Whitehall and Butte. His passions remained preserving, restoring and asserting the public trust management responsibility we all have in fish, wildlife and water resources.

Today the economic bean counters take note of the value of the fish and wildlife resource that has been restored to Montana. I hope we all take a moment to reflect on what Tony Schoonen did and others are still doing in the public interest. Tony did indeed set a high standard and we now all benefit from $2.4 billion a year added to our economy – every year. That is not a bad legacy left by a six-month-old dropped off at an orphanage door 89 years ago.

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Jim Posewitz is an author and conservationist who lives in Helena.


Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.