I took the walk alone. That was my mistake.
It was like in the movies or cartoons where a character walks into the dark forest and the trees grow taller and more threatening. Animals with sharp teeth hid in every bush and readied themselves to assault me. I could feel them there just as the world grew darker around me and I slid quickly into a full-fledged panic attack no more than 100 feet into the trailhead. Why was this happening? I had made this walk dozens of times. Then it hit me: There were no men with rifles around me anymore. There were no attack helicopters or bombing runs from jets. It was just me and hundreds of miles of wilderness ahead.
In the summer of 2005, after surviving my first Iraq deployment, I returned to my mother’s house near the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to get back to my Montana roots. I had walked the trail just minutes from her front door only a year beforehand and there was never any fear. My dog and I came upon a black bear once. Occasionally there would be the crash of a moose in the creek or the low howl of wolves further into the woods.
That day I felt like Montana had broken me. I was ashamed of myself. But that quick walk, that first journey into this state’s greatest natural treasure, taught me more than any Army class or psychologist could. I was broken. I had wounds from a war where I never fired a shot or took a life, on my own. This has taken years to recover from and I am still working through issues to this day.
Montana’s public lands were an integral element to my recovery. It was a specific reason I abandoned a career in Washington, D.C. to get back here. But now that is all in danger thanks to another Montanan in our nation’s capital.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has spent most of his adult life playing dress-up for something he is not. He talks about his lethal record as a Navy SEAL but he spent most of his time being ignored by his fellow sailors or siphoning Navy money. He pretended to be a moderate, understanding politician but really just wanted to enrich himself and those who funded his illicit rise. So it should not be a surprise that the Teddy Roosevelt-costumed Interior Secretary is doing his best to turn back public land protections he promised to uphold.
Oh sure, Trump is the one making the decisions but he knows little about public lands issues and Zinke is deeply indebted to the extraction industries that want access. You can draw a straight line between Zinke’s for public consumption reports on the Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments, his private conversations with Trump about them, and Trump’s subsequent decision to completely gut their protections. Americans will not have access to these pristine areas but instead be able to watch the machinery of mining soil the land. Worse, this will not be an anomaly but the test case.
The obvious connection is Trump and Zinke wanting to undo more of Obama’s actions. But there should be larger concerns about rolling back public land protections. You would think a Navy veteran would have the needs of other veterans in his heart when making decisions like this. Zinke is working for a man who has already turned back protections for service animals for veterans, avoided service because of “bone spurs,” and fraudulently claimed to have given money to veteran charities. More and more veterans will seek care from the Veteran’s Administration, which is not so quietly facing talk of future privatization—the Koch Brothers Veterans Hospitals. Will Zinke turn as blind an eye to that as he does to Trump savaging the lands under his watch? (It is a rhetorical question.)
There is a reason the idea of “Keep It Public” cuts across party lines and so many demographics. We Westerners live here because we can escape from it all and disappear into the woods for hours, days, or weeks. We get to connect with our state in ways that other citizens cannot and we hold that dear. The hope with Zinke was that he would bring that understanding to DC. He did not. He sold us out like he sold out his fellow sailors, his constituents, and now the entire nation.
Now I am not alone. There are multitudes who share my anger at Trump’s actions to destroy public lands and Zinke’s inaction to protect them. What they have failed to see in their desire to enrich themselves and exact revenge on former presidents is that there is a massive movement of us who will not stand for it. To my comrades in conservation, this sellout is about their life’s work to expand access for all of us. For my fellow hunters, this land grab is about the ability to be one with your prey and its environment. For so many hurting veterans, this soul-crushing lack of respect is about a chance to heal the wounds our nation has inflicted upon us. With what will become a failed swoop, Trump and Zinke thought they could undermine all of us. Yet we will resist.