I am a child of the American West. I was raised on the prairie hard by the Missouri River, got my first rifle at age 10, fished every day in the summer months and in the fall and winter spent many a cold night in those cheap army blanket-lined sleeping bags.
In 1950, my father bought the only brand new car he ever owned, and as a family, we embarked on a wandering pilgrimage across Wyoming, through Yellowstone National Park, to the Great Salt Lake, into Nevada and on to California.
We were thrilled by the sight of antelope racing along fence lines, herds of majestic elk making their way slowly across mountain meadows and working cowboys pushing heifers and newborn calves to summer pastures.
As a young man, however, I decided to leave all that behind and head for the bright lights of big cities. I started my network career in California where my wife Meredith and I took long backpacking trips on the Pacific Crest. Even as my career was centered in cities, I longed to return to the West – and so I did. First, as an itinerant backpacker, occasional climber, hunter, angler and summer resident of Colorado, California, South Dakota and Montana.
In 1989, I decided the commitment had to be deeper, so Meredith and I bought into a ranch in Montana. In our corner, before a summer is out, we will see herds of antelope, elk, mulies. I’ll watch for a resident wolf pack and a pair of local coyotes. Lions will come through the ranch at the end of August looking for new groceries. The first bear sighting will continue a family ritual we share with our grandchildren. I’ll try to keep my friendly lab from rattlesnakes as big as gasoline hoses, and from that badger family with cute faces and vicious appetites. Bald and golden eagles will soar overhead. A brace of sandhill cranes will set up shop for the summer. I hope again this summer we’ll see the long-billed curlews in our tall grass. And the rainbow, cuts and browns will, I hope, rise to my PMDs, caddis or green drake.
America is looking to the American West as it hasn’t since the 19th century. Every issue of the 21st century is front and center in the West. Global climate change, energy, water, population expansion, immigration, economic enterprise and economic justice – balancing between human desires and needs and nature’s.
Here’s the good news: The citizens and their leaders in the West have a rare opportunity to prepare for this momentous change, to engage in a dialogue and develop common goals and approaches. The state pride and the fierce independence of the American West can remain intact, but to survive and to thrive, to protect in advance all that is unique and precious about this magical region, will mean more cooperation and a greater shared vision.
As we depend on the West’s native creatures for biodiversity, for keeping our economic systems healthy and whole, as we depend on them for sport and sustenance, for the sheer thrill of seeing them in the wild, they depend on us to keep their world a fit place to live and thrive. Their only vote is our understanding of our stewardship – as keepers of Mother Nature’s creatures that make our planet whole and vital. We know through science and observation that their world is changing. We have the opportunity to make sure it is changing for the better and not for the worse.
Freedom to Roam – a network of wildlife migration corridors – is an imaginative and sensible approach. It requires the most serious consideration and urgent action. It can be a model for other regions, a template for cooperation and vision.
In my lifetime I have seen many perilously close calls: I remember the streams of the Black Hills around Lead, site of the Homestake gold mine, toxic with runoff. Now they’re healthy and full of life. In our Montana valley, and throughout the West, the skies are rich with bald eagles, which were almost lost to indiscriminate pesticide use. Catch-and-release as a central element in angling has helped trout populations flourish. When I look at the bison on our ranch and realize how close we came to losing that magnificent animal, I am renewed in my determination to keep our little piece of geography wildlife friendly.
Two years ago, I visited James Lovell, the moon astronaut. We talked about that epic journey he made. He told me that as Apollo 8 emerged from the backside of the moon, he saw something that no one had prepared him for because no one had ever seen it.
There in the distant void was a small beautiful orb, delicate white filigree clouds, deep blue seas, rich green of the rain forest, the crystal white of the ice caps – it was Mother Earth. Jim Lovell put his thumb up and hid the entire Earth behind his thumb: It gave him a perspective that he carries to this day. He said, “This is our spaceship and we are all responsible for one another.”
On Christmas Eve the three astronauts broadcast from the moon these words from Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Then Frank Borman, the commander of the mission, concluded with verse 10, “and God called the dry land earth, and the gathering together of the waters, he called sea, and God saw that it was good.”
All of God’s creatures are now counting on us to make sure it stays good.