Jobs in Conservation

Conservation rooted in water, public land, timber and recreation is key to our economy

By Mike Jopek

I got an education in conservation back in 2002. It didn’t come from a university, rather from local citizens in Whitefish. I ran for the state Legislature.

In 2004 I received the same message, at the thousands of doors I knocked on around town. Over and over locals voiced their concerns that the public lands surrounding Whitefish Lake were up for sale.

People feared losing access to their public lands in Beaver Lake, Spencer Mountain, Haskill Basin and Smith Lake. Timber jobs and the local economy were in jeopardy.

These forests drive our local economy and protect the town’s drinking water. They’re places locals recreated for generations and land that produces some of the finest timber in Montana.

It was clear that conservation rooted in water, public land, timber and recreation was key to the district’s economy. Jobs matter. Locals were not going to sell off their public lands.

I won that election and headed to Helena.

That first day, as I was introducing myself to the other 49 House Democrats from across Montana, this big guy with a flattop haircut and seven fingers came blaring into the room playing a trumpet. “When the Saints Go Marching In” filled the room.

I couldn’t figure it out. Was this how eastern Montana Democrats politicked? And where was this 600-person town of Big Sandy?

Then he was gone, back to the Senate side of the Capitol. Little did I know then, how helpful that trumpet-playing Jon Tester would become to the critical issues facing my constituents back in Whitefish.

I soon discovered what a Tester as then president of the Montana Senate meant.

Tester was there with key votes to protect the public lands around Whitefish Lake. He got statewide Democrats to support our local conservation. That proved big. Montana Democrats are a diverse group of individuals sharing a big tent.

All of the thousands of acres of permanently protected forestland surrounding Whitefish Lake include timber management. Montanans must be able to access our public lands via trailheads and networks of managed and dispersed recreational trails.

This easement of conservation, timber management and recreation as a working landscape proved beneficial to the local economy and our way of life. Thousands of local Democrats and Republicans worked together to make it possible. It wasn’t easy. There’s much work ahead.

In Helena, during free time from legislative work, I occasionally played Cribbage with Tester. As I played a card for six points, I gained a better understanding of how important working lands were to this dirt farmer.

His values seemed rooted, not in political ideology, rather the simple fact that people need work and land produces crops.

I milked my beer and pegged out on him.

I’m now a full-time farmer, out of politics. Tester is a U.S. senator. But he still farms in Big Sandy, grows organic grains, wears ragged Carhartts, and has seven fingers.

Here’s the thing. There are some activists that are pig-biting-mad at Tester because he is OK with working lands conservation. They’d rather fight Democrats to lose seats in Congress than hold the White House accountable.

This fall, expect out-of-state Republican surrogates to flood Montana airwaves on the Greens’ behalf telling us how bad Tester is on conservation attempting to drive away youth vote.

When Whitefish needed Tester most, to help secure a permanent conservation easement on the towns drinking watershed, he produced.

Tester helped deliver the revenues from oil and gas leases that now permanently protected 3,000 acres of private forestland in Haskill Basin. The community did the hard work and the forest watershed remains forever managed for timber, water, wildlife and recreation.

The Greens and I might agree on some stuff. Not amongst potentially shared values is booting the only organic farmer from Congress.