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Amidst the nationwide stay-at-home order, a curious question has been trending on Google. In the absence of so many normal activities people are wondering, “Are birds singing louder?” The answer is no. Americans are just being quieter.

Being quite is a good thing. It gives us an opportunity to pause, listen and envision the world we want to live in. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed cracks in American society, from inequality in health care, an inadequate social safety net, to hyper-partisanship. During these challenging times I find myself considering the world I want to leave for future generations.

I am the co-founder and program director for the Montana Wilderness School (MWS). We provide empowering expeditionary wilderness courses to youth that foster personal growth and cultivate a conservation ethic through connecting with remote landscapes and wild places. Every summer, I am lucky to see young Montanan’s challenge and enjoy themselves in the mountains and on the rivers of our state.

Mental health experts predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause an increase in stress-related cognitive impairment for youth. Naturally, this prediction got me thinking about our students at MWS. Reflecting gave me a glimmer of hope. I recalled watching a group of 16- and 17-year-old Montanans struggle against headwinds, strong eddy lines, and rapids as they paddled packrafts down the Yellowstone River. It would be impossible for me to capture in words the pride and accomplishment those young people felt as they made camp on the riverbank that evening. The experience of paddling over 100 miles on a river tethered them to the water and the landscape in transformative ways. This trip also tested their grit, providing an opportunity for that group of young people to transcend physical, mental and emotional challenges, working together to accomplish their goal. These are transferable skills that will become the building blocks of healthy coping mechanisms to aid these students in the world that lies ahead.

Recollecting one particular student from Three Forks. Her greatest takeaways were not the tolerance for uncertainty she developed or the perseverance she honed on the river. Rather, she came away with an inspiring commitment to preservation. “Experiencing it makes me want to save it for more people; I want it (the river) to be there for more people to see.” Her instinct was not to focus on her own accomplishments but rather voice her commitment to conservation. And she’s right; we need to act now to protect Montana’s wild waterways so others can enjoy these rivers and streams.

The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act (MHLA) gives us a unique opportunity to invest in Montana’s future by preserving one of our state’s most valuable natural resources — our cold, free flowing rivers and streams — keeping them healthy for the future. This act would create wild and scenic designations to protect rivers like the Yellowstone, Stillwater, Boulder and others to keep them free-flow (no dams), maintain water quality (for people and wildlife alike), and preserve their unique values (from fishing to scenic views) — forever. It does all this without affecting historic water rights, recreation, private property or taxpayer dollars. The MHLA is an investment in Montana’s rivers and streams, securing critical habitat for fish and wildlife and ensuring that future generations have opportunities to enjoy and connect with the wild waterways of Montana.

Montanans are rolling up our sleeves to work on the many important issues that the pandemic has made so evident. Let us also take time to protect the rivers and landscapes that make Montana our home. Get outside if you can, do so responsibly, listen to the birds and then carve out a moment to call our senators and members of Congress. Ask them to introduce and pass The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act so that future generations have a place to spread their wings.

As we strive to cope with the uncertainty around us, it is imperative that we also think deeply about the future. May it be a future with enough quiet places and wild spaces to hear the birds singing.

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Josh Olsen was born and raised in Havre and is the co-founder and program director for the Montana Wilderness School. He lives in Bozeman with his wife, two dogs and a young son.