Two Seats at Public Lands Tables
John Baden's introduction to Scott McMillion and the Montana Quarterly
The Montana Quarterly is high on my list of quality magazines. Its publisher, Scott McMillion, is an unambiguously good and talented guy who lives in the Paradise Valley, one drainage to the east of ours. Over the decades Scott has participated in several FREE programs and I always welcome him.
This is his description of the magazine’s operation:
“We’re looking for — and finding — stories you won’t find anyplace else: the way the oil boom alters our small towns, whether grizzly bears or sheep get the first shot at public land, who swings the real weight in politics, who’s on the federal dole and who’s not, how our justice system works.”
(And here is how to subscribe if you miss Montana or would like to know our area better: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +1 406-333-2154. “If we’re not in, leave a message and we’ll get back to you. That’s a promise.”)
The magazine’s “Who we are” section begins with this quote from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley:
“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love.”
Scott then explains, “At the Montana Quarterly, we feel the same way. Some of us came from someplace else and some of us grew up here but all of us made the decision to live here. And none of us sank roots in Montana because we thought we’d get rich. There’s something a lot bigger than money going on in this place.”
One important “thing going on” here is wide and deep appreciation for open space, fish and wildlife, outdoor scenery, recreation, and adventure. This fosters great appreciation for public lands. About one third of the state’s 94 million acres is owned by the federal and state governments, 25 million and 5.5 million respectively.
Because these are acres owned by government, their management is necessarily political. Naturally, various interest groups contend for influence; ranchers, outfitters, hikers, ORV drivers and mountain bikers, among others. This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just a logical outcome when a government operates a system.
By most accounts Montana’s state lands are well managed. At least since the administration of governor Ted Schwinden, corruption has been rare and administration professional. The federal land agencies are generally less well regarded and there is increasing dissatisfaction with federal land management. Francis Fukuyama’s denunciation of the U. S. Forest Service in the Sept/Oct Foreign Affairs is suggestive. He describes that once proud and competent agency as “...a highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools.”
Still, the land is public and generally accessible for many kinds of recreation. And people here like that. Scott examines this in an op ed in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle of October 10, 2014, “Bob Dennee gave us a seat at the public lands table”. He begins: “Like a lot of people, I worry about the future of public lands. Every few years some outfit or another mounts a campaign to dispose of them, to turn Montana into something resembling Texas, where almost all the land is private and you almost always need somebody’s permission to leave the road.”
Scotts piece is a tribute of thanks to Bob Dennee, a Forest Service land specialist. He retired after 39 years of protecting environmental qualities from a wide range of special pleaders going after the checkerboard lands granted to the railroads in 1862.
I share Scott’s interest in preserving the many and varied values flowing from our public lands. However, public need not be governmental. I think it likely that public fiduciary trusts offer more security for these values than do federal agencies as interest and entitlement payments consume ever more of the federal budget. Putting that argument aside, here is Scott’s column. It offers a glimpse of the thinking underlying Montana Quarterly
“Bob Dennee gave us a seat at the public lands table”
Like a lot of people, I worry about the future of public lands. Every few years, some outfit or another mounts a campaign to dispose of them, to turn Montana into something resembling Texas, where almost all the land is private and you almost always need somebody's permission to leave the road.
This situation grows worse when you consider that the federal agencies in charge of public lands have been strangled by lawsuits, falling budgets, bureaucratic inertia, mean-spirited politics and laws that often don't seem to make much sense. People at the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management must sometimes feel like the bone in the middle of a dogfight.
But Bob Dennee never shirked. For more than 20 years, I watched him dive into one controversial land deal after another. He faced some of the toughest negotiators in the region, people like developer Tim Blixseth, attorney Joe Sabol, resort owner Dave Brask and the Church Universal and Triumphant. All of them were looking to make the best deal for themselves or their clients through land swaps or sales. Bob was trying to make the best deal for the public and its property. It wasn't easy.
But by the end of his career, Bob helped add 150,000 acres to the Gallatin National Forest and established a couple dozen access routes so people can get to the forest boundary. Some of these deals were huge - tens of thousands of acres from Big Sky Lumber Company -- and some were just a couple acres in prime elk habitat. From the north end of the Crazies to the borders of Yellowstone National Park, we've got public land that no longer faces the possibility of sprawling subdivisions or No Trespassing signs. Bob Dennee was in the middle of every one of those deals.
As of August 1, he's retired, after 39 years with the Forest Service, most of that as a lands specialist, a title that doesn't sound very glamorous and one that required him to spend countless hours in a third floor office in the federal building on Babcock, surrounded by maps and legal documents. But because he did the job well, big parts of Montana are a little wilder today, a little greener, a little better. He wasn't always an easy guy to work with (neither was I, to tell the truth), but I think we're all going to miss him.
Bob was never one of those bureaucrats who just filled a chair and went to meetings, though he did attend a lot of meetings, where he often got chewed on by crabby interest groups, suspicious landowners, axe-grinders, malcontents, rafts of lawyers, pesky reporters, and congressional aides who worried more about the next election than they did about the public welfare.
Bob is proud of his accomplishments, as he should be. But he's also humble.
"I had support from a lot of good people," he said of his career.
And a lot of good people owe him thanks. Bob helped eliminate a lot of the checkerboard pattern that once dominated maps of the Gallatin National Forest. Those pink or white squares on the map were the legacy of railroad land grants during Abraham Lincoln's day, boxes that indicated private or corporate ownership and thereby the threat of new roads, new fences, new threats to wildlife and recreation and solitude. Bob helped turn a lot of those squares green, working quietly, often behind the scenes, but asking for help when he needed it.
So I'm hoping the rest of us can help keep them green. Too many politicians advocate selling public lands, often claiming mismanagement by the agencies they've helped strangle with budget cuts and political agendas.
We can argue later about the wisdom of logging or ATV trails or wildfire on those lands. But if we didn't own them, as public property, we wouldn't even have a seat at the table.
Now, because of Bob Dennee, we've got more to talk about.
Scott McMillion is publisher of Montana Quarterly magazine. For 20 years, he covered politics and the environment for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.