Having just celebrated the beginning of a new year, we also now embark on a new decade. Perhaps this is a good time to take stock of how land conservation is faring.
The words of that great Republican conservationist Theodore Roosevelt provide a good yardstick to measure our present situation. He wrote close to a century ago that, "The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, not impaired, in value."
So what does this mean on the ground in Montana? I don't think we have lived up to Teddy's words yet. The next generation is in danger of receiving a more degraded and damaged legacy unless we make real progress in the years to come in three areas: protecting more of our last wildlands, increasing our restoration commitments, and effectively accounting for climate change.
Montana's public lands contain many exceptional landscapes where wild nature still rules and almost all native species remain, from sage brush "Big Sky" expanses in eastern Montana to rugged alpine cirques and thick, forested hillsides in western Montana. But while iconic areas like the Beartooths, Spanish Peaks and Bob Marshall have been protected with the gold standard of wilderness designation, the fate of many other deserving wildlands remains in our hands.
So through wilderness and other protective designations, we must encourage our elected leaders to act so that the next generation can have the opportunity to experience these areas without the "impairments" of new roads or major developments. Montana-made proposals like the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act or the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would deliver these needed protections for some of the wildest country in our state but only if enacted.
But protecting this "last of the best" will not be enough. Over the past several decades Montanans have made tremendous advances in land restoration, from the clean-up of old mine sites and several successful species re-introductions, to a new approach to managing rivers, wildfires, and other processes.
Still, a lot more restoration work — including forest thinning, road ripping and stabilization, exotic species eradication and stream enhancements — needs to be done if we are going to address mistakes of past land management.
Indeed, we will only meet Roosevelt's dictum of "increasing our natural resource assets" if we significantly expand our investment in restoring degraded lands. The good news is that this work can create jobs in resource dependent communities, has already catalyzed place-based collaborative initiatives around the state, and is strongly supported by many of our elected leaders.
Climate change is the game changer of our generation. If we don't effectively accommodate the new stresses and unknowns that it brings to our landscapes, our conservation investments and decisions will be compromised.
Where will the big-game habitat and migrations shift to in a warmer, drier Montana? What should our managers focus on to ensure cold water refugia for our treasured trout fisheries? How will our forests change in location, diversity and age structure under a new climate, affecting everything from wildfire threats to water supplies to timber availability?
These and other climate questions demonstrate that land management based on a static, traditional approach will no longer suffice. Instead, our managers must incorporate long-term changes into their planning, promote ecological resiliency where possible, and also prioritize needs for adaptation. We'll need to monitor more, manage with less certainty, account for more frequent disturbances, and expect invasions of new non native species.
I'm confident that through a mixture of new wildland protections, expanded restoration work, and new climate smart management, we can meet Roosevelt's charge and pass onto unborn generations a sustained and improved natural resource legacy.
But it will require all of us rolling up our sleeves and constructively engaging in the sometimes messy work of conservation. For as Roosevelt noted in 1916: "The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method."
Peter Aengst is Northern Rockies regional director for The Wilderness Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.