Governor Gianforte of Montana, he of body-slamming-a-reporter infamy, recently faced harsh feedback from his own party. Was the Governor becoming green in terms of public lands in his own state? Not really. In fact the other “green”(ie. marijuana) was the reason for our overflights and the reason behind a fascinating controversy.
I took off towards Montana for these flights in mid-June, a state close to my heart, wondering if smoke from Canadian wildfires would also engulf the ‘Treasure State’, like it did much of northern USA in June.
Montana is known for its superlative hunting and one of the most popular and prolific areas is around the Missouri Breaks National Monument, characterized by rock outcroppings, steep bluffs, and grassy plains in north-central Montana – a remote rural area with some challenging access roads. These unmaintained roads are in constant disrepair and were the focus of our overflight mission. A recent bipartisan bill would have allocated 20% of tax revenues generated by the sale of marijuana in Montana to Montana’s 56 counties for road maintenance. The money would have funded improvements that are needed for residents to get their crops to the market and for EMTs to respond to medical emergencies. The legislation would also have improved roads to increase public land access in the Missouri Breaks for recreationists, hunters, and anglers. However, the Governor vetoed this bill to the uproar of its mass supporters, as he waited till after the state legislative session had adjourned making it impossible for the legislature to overturn the veto, a potential violation of the state constitution.
Our flights, loaded with members of the press and county commissioners, documented the deplorable state of the roads in two adjoining counties, many of which are the few points of access for the Missouri Breaks and its many recreational opportunities. Hunters, anglers, and visitors come from all over to visit this remote spot, and these roads are critical to making it possible. Montana has seen a large influx of out-of-staters buying up huge ranches and cutting off access, so maintained county roads are critical to getting to these prime public lands. Our partners (Montana Association of Counties, Wild Montana, and Montana Wildlife Federation) have sued Gianforte and the Secretary of State, and EcoFlight will stay abreast of this issue as it makes its way through the court system.
Onward in the smoke to our next adventure, flying south to Livingston to conduct flights over another critical roadway – Highway 89, one of the few access roads from Montana into Yellowstone National Park. Due to the heavy winter, high snowbanks forced wildlife onto the roadways, and an inordinate number of critters were killed on this main highway of Paradise Valley. A concerted effort is being waged to create wildlife highway crossings to ensure that the Upper Yellowstone is a place where people can travel the highway without wildlife-related accidents, and where the highway is not a barrier to seasonal movement of Yellowstone’s wildlife populations.
Flights provided aerial scoping and video to corroborate on the ground data as part of a joint initiative with local conservation organizations like Park County Environmental Council, Yellowstone Safe Passages, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the National Park Service and many community and philanthropic partners.
As the smoke thickened, we zipped up north to a small airstrip just east of Glacier National Park, in Browning, headquarters for the Blackfeet Nation. The surrounding area is stunning as the foothills lead up into Glacier National Park, and the surrounding hills, while not in the park, have the look and feel of the park itself. Our flights covered many conservation issues, from bringing attention to the remaining oil and gas lease in the heart of the region, Badger-Two Medicine, the recent reintroduction of bison to the Chief Mountain region and the protection of this area, and demarcating areas for snowmobiling.
Members of the Tribe were eager to see the land from the air and better learn about the challenges to some of their sacred areas and to inform the public of these challenges.
Working our way home as if by braille through the smoke, we reached the border of Colorado and were greeted by the sight of a land of emerald green, the result of our incredibly wet winter and spring.
Even with the big winter and lush spring, the heat dome that sits over the country right now is showing us that climate change has not abated. Dry hot weather with its accompanying high winds have us back on alert both for flights and for the state of our planet.