Like a lot of people on Aug. 31, I stared with disbelief at my news feed announcement from Glacier National Park that the main building at Sperry Chalet had burned. I felt a great sense of loss. Much more than might be expected from someone who never actually stayed overnight at Sperry Chalet. I think I had a piece of pie there about 40 years ago on one of my Mount Jackson climbs. I haven’t even been by the place in recent years and had no plans to visit.
Judging by the outpouring of grief on social media, there are many who feel the loss much more acutely than I do. That’s certainly understandable, because over the last century thousands of people stayed there, worked there, met friends, made new friends and established traditions.
However, what I find more compelling is the sense of loss from all of us who never stayed there, and had no plans to stay there. Why do we care? Why do we feel such a loss for something we had no part in creating, probably no part in maintaining, and likely no plans to make use of?
Of course, the Sperry Basin, in its natural state, is an absolutely gorgeous and environmentally diverse area that needs no improvement. The Native Americans understood that, but those of my racial makeup seem to think we need to make at least enough changes so we can enjoy a cup of coffee in warmth and safety — but that’s a topic for another day.
Our society functions best when we take reasonable collective ownership and pride in what we have together, whether it be created or natural. This ranges from a small community park carefully tended by neighbors, to larger entities, like our Sperry Chalet, our national parks, our national forests, and our other public lands.
When I’m in one of my fields and I look up at the Swan Range, I’m not looking at King George’s forests. I’m looking at our land, and I know that should I choose, I could park my tractor, grab my backpack and within two hours be happily exploring Alpine Trail 7 once again. No one will challenge my right to be there. That’s pretty special and that’s why forest fires in general, and the loss of Sperry Chalet in particular, feel so personal. I had no plans to spend the night at Sperry Chalet, but I know that if I wanted to, I could. Now I can’t.
The decision-making process for that which is owned collectively is not easy. It involves a lot of muddling about as we go through the public process of determining, hopefully, the greatest good for the greatest number of people. When considering threats to our great national treasure of public lands and structures, environmental extremists can be a problem — in some areas timber harvest should be increased, and management can always be improved. But all of those are becoming increasingly irrelevant in comparison to the real threat of human-caused climate change. Our elected officials must act based on scientific fact instead of random opinions, and stop yipping like coyotes about the lesser distracting issues. They must focus on drastically reducing our contribution to climate change. Until that happens, we can expect increasing catastrophic wildfires and the loss of more historic structures like Sperry Chalet.
Joe Brenneman is a rancher, farmer and former Flathead County commissioner.