Nestled on the downwind side of the Rocky Mountains, Dubois, Wyoming is in the southeast arm of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. This small mountain town has been our home for nearly four decades. We spent 30 years building and operating a successful wilderness outfitting business. We saddled horses for folks who want to vacation, to hunt big game, to share natural and human history, and to roam around the last intact ecosystem in the temperate zones of the earth. Patient horses carried us to the Continental Divide that winds along the spine of the Rockies through the Wind River and Absaroka Ranges of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, our backyard.
It is a rare and fortunate gift when a person finds opportunity with a sense of place, with the perfect partner at the right time to make a living doing what one loves. Even though we had both previously worked at many different jobs, Dubois gave us the chance to build a career by putting people on horseback and exploring unspoiled wilderness. Like many young outfitters, we had more enthusiasm than cash and focused on big game hunting as the main money-maker. With Teddy Roosevelt as our conservation role model, we dreamed of month-long packtrips through Yellowstone and the Thorofare. Through the years, we expanded our business into summer pack trips, while still taking hunters during the fall. This led to pack trips that focused on themes such as “Watercolor in the Winds” and “On the Trail of the Sheepeater Indians.” The latter involved cutting-edge high altitude archaeology research that enabled us to work on new discoveries of prehistoric occupation with our friend, Rich Adams, at the Wyoming State Archaeologist Office. It has been rewarding to follow our personal passion and document these previously unknown, but very important sites for history with friends, new and old. Many friends we’ve made, such as Dr. David Love and Dr. George Frison, helped us understand the geology and prehistoric cultures of the mountains we now know so well.
Now, in the last few years of our business, we have completely dropped hunting. While we still hunt ourselves, we weaned ourselves from guiding hunters and leaned towards eco-tourism, conservation, fishing, and natural history pack trips. It is much easier on our aging backs and more profitable for us to show a family a clear trout stream running through a flower-filled mountain meadow than to put a hunter on a trophy bull or ram.
The Continental Divide, the “Backbone of the World” as the Blackfeet Indians call it, is a good place for unobstructed views of the far horizon, a place to look back at the trail we travelled to reach the crest, and a place to look ahead to the path before us. On the spine of the Rockies is the perfect spot for us to pause and take stock of the moment, of ourselves, and of the world.
Now we find ourselves at another divide. After all this time of outfitting and sharing our special places in this mountain world with friends, new and old, we sold our outfitting business to start down another of life’s watersheds. Wall Street calls this “executing a business exit strategy.” We call it turning the page of life’s book and moving along to a new chapter. This chapter will include continuing to explore Greater Yellowstone from horseback during the summer months, but without a string of guests and extra packhorses trailing behind. The next chapter will also expand on a lifetime of discovering and revisiting the Rocky Mountain West by car, canoe, bike, and foot as we have always loved to do.
It also allows us to invest in a small adobe fixer-upper casa in the Land of Enchantment. There we can immerse ourselves in the rich and historic Hispanic, Pueblo, Native American, Anglo, Hippie, Honkie, and candlestick-maker cultures of the Southwest. We look forward to an annual migration to southern climes to help shorten the long winters.From the divide, as we begin this new chapter, it is a good time to pause, reflect on what has changed, and look ahead at the remainder of life’s amazing journey.
On several occasions through the years, we have been asked to talk about our outfitting business, eco-tourism, and making a living from wildlands. At the end of each public presentation, we would show a slide of a beautiful mountain meadow surrounded by snow-capped peaks with a crystal-clear creek flowing to a high lake. We would say something like, “This is how the land looked when we started our wilderness outfitting business.” Then, we’d show the same idyllic photograph again and comment, “This is how the land looks today.” The point is our business was conducted to leave no trace, and to be light on the land. As backcountry outfitters, we are proud to have made a good living without changing the landscape.
However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to say all Wyoming land looks the same as it did three decades ago. The landscape is changing before our eyes. From the divide, we can see that the glaciers are melting and the forests are dying. Disease, a decade of drought, insect larvae that survive warmer winters and global climate change have all come together to create a “perfect storm” in our forests. This is economically disturbing to outfitters, because it will be increasingly difficult to sell the public a vacation in a dead forest. However, we are even more concerned about the long-term impact this will have on the flora, fauna and, indeed, people and communities.
The first time we saw Woodard Canyon in the Teton Wilderness was during a summer-long pack trip in 1976. We celebrated America’s Bicentennial on July Fourth by exploring Greater Yellowstone’s wilderness wonders. Our route took us up the South Buffalo Fork, past Ferry Lake, over the Continental Divide, and down the spectacular Woodard Canyon. Hundreds of huge, towering, spruce trees lined the trail as it descends. These giant spruces, some six feet in diameter, have been standing guard at this gateway to the upper Yellowstone River for hundreds of years. In those years the spruce were green. The next year there were splotches of red needles.
The next year the entire spruce forest was red and dead, and now all we see are bare, gray spruce skeletons. We have seen forests die suddenly and change overnight from fire, but the death of a forest from insects, disease and drought has a different feeling. This is not normal, not natural. The dead spruce in Woodard Canyon seem to be trees tortured by an alien force. Until a fire sweeps the canyon and triggers new growth, riding through the once-magnificent canyon is now like being in a haunted graveyard.
As we ride through valleys we have traveled for decades, the dead and dying conifers reveal the rapid changes in the landscape. The mountain pine beetle has marched like Napolean’s troops from Montana down through Yellowstone and into the Wind River Range, staging a series of relentless attacks on ancient whitebark pine trees that have seen more than a millenium of change.
The Astorians saw these same whitebark pine growing as they traversed Union Pass in the early 19th century on their way to the west coast. Last fall, we guided a group of scientists and journalists to Union Pass to monitor the beetles’ progress by observing larval pitch tubes in the whitebark pine and limber pine tree forests. Seasoned scientists were brought to tears as they witnessed these ancient trees dying, after all that the trees had survived.
Two years ago, there was hardly a dead tree here, but now the insect army seems relentless in its march south through the Wind River Mountains. There seems to be no silver bullet that saves these trees at the southern extremity of their range. Climatologists say that colder winters seem unlikely, but some silviculturists hope for insect and disease resistance in the remaining conifers, so that at least some will survive.
These large landscape changes in the short span of our lives humble us all when we realize our role in them. What would the ancient ones of prehistoric cultures say about these dead and dying forests?
Recently, we participated in a purification ceremony in the sweat lodge of a Shoshone friend on the nearby Wind River Indian Reservation. We prayed, sang, smoked the ancient pipe, and drummed for a better world in general, and for healing our dying forests in particular. Our only comfort was the thought that red, dead mountainsides that were once green will someday regenerate, that fire will heal the land and new forests will grow from the ashes.
From the great divide, we see more change and sound like cranky old-timers as we note the human population explosion. There’s an annual increase in the number of people using, and often, abusing, the mountains. Only a few decades ago, there were no ATVs, snow machines, heli-skiing, ice climbers, or mountain bikes. The population boom has escalated the hunger for more access to our public lands. Wildlife migration corridors are being choked by oil and gas wells, roads, fences and homes. With both the public and politicians ignoring the need to limit human population growth, we are witness to a stampede with unprecedented demands on both our natural resources and wilderness areas.
Once night was dark with only the stars and planets to gaze at, no communication and spy satellites to come between a person and God. There were places where a person could go for days, not see a sign of another human, and feel like they were the first person to ever step on that land. Today we often find elk hunting camps pitched in the very meadows where in years past we shot winter’s meat. Back then, especially during the winter months, it was not uncommon to drive for hours on Wyoming roads and see only one or two vehicles often carrying a neighbor we’d salute with a friendly wave. Today on Highway 26/287 that borders our place, there is nearly constant traffic, all day and night, all year leaving a trail of roadkill along the way. According to the area Wyoming Game and Fish biologist, more doe deer are killed on the highway in the Dubois area than are killed by hunters.
Americans have long had a love/hate relationship with the West. We fall in love with its rugged beauty, but then try to extract every ounce of value from its forests, rivers, mountains and real estate in order to buy our own postage stamp piece of paradise. We see this not only in Dubois, but throughout the West from New Mexico to Alaska. Some realtors provide a necessary service for property sellers and buyers. Other realtors play landrush Monopoly for profit and to try to create false markets and real estate booms. As a result, we find each year we have many new Western neighbors. Our county property taxes are based, not on the price we paid for our property, but on the price our new neighbors paid for theirs. Many of these new neighbors are here to build yet another trophy home in the “last best place.”
We meet more and more new residents who admit they moved to Wyoming only because we do not have a state income tax. Few seem to notice or mind that in this land rush Monopoly game, the real estate market puts property out of reach of those of us trying to stay in Wyoming. It seems that wealthy new “residents” get their tax breaks, but at the same time drive their neighbors’ property taxes through the roof. And without adequate land use plans in place, they build their new trophy homes on the skyline where they ruin the view and destroy the wildlife winter range. There can be no sustainability in the West until we can create a society that places sensible growth over profit at any price.
Perhaps what is most disturbing about change and “progress,” is the lack of leadership with a long term vision for Wyoming. Our collective mindset is stuck in the Manifest Destiny of the 1800s. Many people recognize the problems of our nation demanding more and more from Wyoming’s natural resources, but too many residents, new and old, accept this “progress” with a shrug of shoulders. Whatever happened to former Governor Ed Herschler’s philosophy of developing “Wyoming on Wyoming’s terms”? It is too easy to just roll along in the “surplus” mineral revenue, and rubber-stamp development on any terms without a vision for the future.
This concerns us deeply because it has increased political pressure on our state’s wildlife management programs. Once winter range was sacred ground — off limits to development. Now there are only seasonal restrictions that are routinely waived. Bending to political pressure, our wildlife managers act more like domestic animal veterinarians and county agriculture extension agents than wildlife biologists. The term “habitat protection” is seldom used anymore, for fear of political reprisal.
Olaus and Mardy Murie, as well as Aldo Leopold, must be spinning in their graves.
As conservationists, we have tried to affect change over the decades we’ve lived in Wyoming. From helping to organize local land use plans to protecting wilderness, wildlife habitat, and migration corridors, we’ve worked on laudable programs with some wonderful, dedicated people who have become life-long friends. We felt a sense of pride at the success of passing the Wyoming Wilderness Act. Likewise, we had a strong sense of accomplishment when the Instream Flow Initiative finally became law. We take ownership and responsibility for seeing adequate water in the Wind River to support a sustainable fishery. We worked for years on the Wildlife Trust Fund and feel like stewards who played a role in its passage by thinking globally and acting locally. But the years have eroded these powerful mandates, and now many programs are so underfunded that they are almost impotent.
Occasionally, conservationists are forced to be involved in more contentious issues, like when we took a stand against salt-baiting big game out of Yellowstone. This issue represents basic ethical behavior, of honesty and respect that should be standard operating procedure for us all. However, some outfitters chose to bully us and others with personal attacks when we questioned such activities. Unfortunately for them, they showed their true colors as they took the low road while we took the high road to ethical wildlife management. We were soon vindicated when a few leaders in the state legislature introduced a bill to prohibit hunters from salt-baiting big game animals. The bill passed and was signed into law, which made salt-baiters true outlaws. Some outfitters continued to bait big game with salt, and they were eventually caught red-handed and brought to justice.
Another change we’ve seen is the increasing intolerance and lack of civility in public discourse in Wyoming. Too often, public meetings and hearings are punctuated with catcalls and hateful glares instead of a respectful exchange of ideas. Many Wyomingites lament that they feel alienated by their politicians because elected officials are just not listening to the public anymore. We’re embarrassed by the Wyoming Legislature’s rudeness to newly elected President Obama by ignoring the country’s presidential inauguration ceremony. We can do better as a state by electing representatives who respect our democracy.
Sadly, this lack of leadership and civility has denied our role as wildlife stewards by opposing even reasonable plans like managing the gray wolf as a trophy game species statewide. This plan was originally proposed by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, but was shot down by the state. Then the Fremont County Commission showed its obstinate intolerance by outlawing grizzly bears and wolves in Fremont County. This politicization of Wyoming’s wildlife only serves to polarize the state, waste valuable resources, and keep these species listed when they could easily be recovered. Wolves and bears are part of Wyoming. With so many important problems to be addressed, the state’s intolerance of gray wolves and grizzly bears shows a strident opposition to the will of the majority of the people.
From the divide, we feel joy that there is still enough wildland left for the recovery of threatened and endangered species such as grizzly bears and wolves. During the last half of our outfitting career, our guests and we had the privilege to see an increasing number of bears, wolves and mountain lions in the wild. Contrary to some outfitters’ opinions, this actually improved our business as the public’s demand to “experience the wild” increased. In turn, we have seen how large carnivores have helped benefit the diversity of all species, from moose to migratory songbirds, as riparian habitat quality has been enhanced by the recovering predator-prey balance of life.
During one of our final outfitting trips last year, we took a pack trip with the theme “On the Trail of the Nez Perce” through Yellowstone. We started at Fishing Bridge and took a timeless trip through Pelican Valley’s lush, deep grass, spotting bison herds, a grizzly sow and two rolly-polly cubs, elk, wolves, migratory waterfowl, and gurgling sandhill cranes. It was 2008, but it could have been 1908 or 1808. Wilderness is a time machine. The pulse of life was palpable as each animal staged for their autumn migration. The frantic drumbeat of “progress” was drowned out, and left behind was the quiet pulse and rhythm of nature.
At the end of the day, our view from the divide is a sunset with threatening thunderheads and lightning on the horizon. We ride our horses down the other side of the divide, through our precious mountains under a double rainbow, with an eye cast on the squalls ahead. We are stoic, if not optimistic, about the future of Wyoming, the West, and the world. Comfort and hope can be restored, we fully know, simply by stepping up onto a loyal horse and riding to the mountain top for a look around.
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