Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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Today – September 3 -- President Obama proclaimed September 2009 as National Wilderness Month.  Today also marks the 45th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, among the most vital of any legislation ever passed by Congress.  I only realized the date, and heard about the proclamation, after finishing this piece.  May we all celebrate the magnificence of our wild country, and not forget its safety requires never-ending vigilance.

Protecting Land

There are hitches to protecting what you love.  For instance, once in Central Park, trying to protect my dog from the insane kick of a woman-one-ought-never-tangle-with, I ended up in an actual physical fight.  My friend Graham interceded and nobody died.  (I did try to talk to her first.)   Another instance, joining with thousands of people in voicing the opinion that the air and sound pollution of snowmobiles has no place in Yellowstone’s winter has resulted in numerous court cases, and, for now, a cap on their numbers and how they’re used, but not a total ban.

And then, there’s my own land -- wet meadows, woods and stream, and views to the edge of the universe.  Not huge, it is big enough to provide summer habitat for a few sandhill cranes, nesting space for great horned owls and swallows, bluebirds and robins, a place for deer to feed and shelter, for coyotes to sing the moon into sky.  In calving season eagles hang out to clean up the afterbirth. This summer a white pelican touched down on the creek, wings spread over the water like an angel. 

Believing the land deserves permanent protection, a means to keep it forever from passing to someone who would drain its wetlands to build condos, or trophy houses, David and I  went to the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Our neighbors down the dirt road have a conservation easement through the Service’s Wetland Reserve Program.  That seemed right for us, too.  South Willow Creek flows across our land, through a culvert under the road, emerges to cross theirs, so it’s all the same land.

Approval for the program is based on both the appropriateness of the land, and the numbers of people applying in any one region in a given year. We applied two years ago and were approved some months later.  Then the department’s lawyers discovered problems.  My problems, as far as they were concerned.

The big one was a federal lien against the previous owner for back taxes.  The title company hadn’t mentioned this when I took the land over, so the surprise came via the NRCS. It didn’t matter to them that it wasn’t my taxes.  I don’t always approve of how my tax dollars are spent – on wars, for instance – but I do pay them.  I had friends who, refusing to pay taxes supporting the Viet Nam war, moved to an island off the Maine coast where, living below poverty level, they had no taxes.  But they didn’t simply not pay them.

Next came an objection to an old telephone company right of way across the property.  The Wetlands Reserve  Program Specialist took care of this one.  But the IRS deal took a year of time, a lot of work on my lawyer’s part, and a more money than I wanted to spend.  

Then, as we went to closing in June, and I looked at the surveyer’s map, I thought the government access had been placed in our driveway.  Because a mistake like that would require an entirely new survey, and probably another year of time, this quickly got everybody’s attention.  Fortunately, I was wrong.  Rarely has it been such relief to be wrong.      

In mid-August, David and I and the five NRCS people involved in the project crossed the perennially wet fields below the house.  For us, this was celebration; the easement now a reality.  When we reached the creek we could see the biologist’s excitement.  “The trout in this creek are whirling disease resistant,”  he announced. 

Whirling disease, serious anywhere, is  especially so in a state like Montana where fly fishing is both a religion and a major industry.  It is an awful disease.   A parasitic single-cell organism (Myxobolus cerebralis) infects the Tubifex tubifex worm which excretes it into the water in spore form.  The spores then penetrate the skin of  fish, multiply inside the fish, move up the neural tissue and eat the fish’s cartilage.   The results are spinal deformities, black tails and, when the fish is excited, whirling.  There is no cure.  Food can make the already stressed fish whirl.  But when it whirls, it cannot feed.  You rarely see a trout whirling in the stream because fish this sick die quickly, either from starvation or because they are easy prey.  As their bodies decay, the M. cerebralis is released back into the stream to await the next T. tubifex.

About 10 years ago I wrote an article about whirling disease for The Wall Street Journal.  I had driven out to the creek south of my land with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who were trapping young fish to study.  Infecting the salmon family of fish – trout, salmon, gar, grayling, whitefish-- whirling disease, which is native to Eurasia, was first found in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in 1956.

The NRCS biologist comes from Pennsylvania.  “A coal mining town,” he said. “Both my grandfathers died of black lung disease.”  I could imagine he was glad to get out of there, get some fresh air, some Montana sky. 

Ten years ago there were moderately resistant fish in the Willow Creek system.  Over the years since I wrote the article, nature did a pretty major selection process (the thing it does when we leave it alone) and the fish within this system—Harrison/DeSmet rainbow trout-- have now become highly resistant.  The Willow Creek system is the only source of this wild rainbow in the world.

The creek ran clear, shallow, and fairly broad over pebbles, everything luminescent grey on a grey morning.  There was a lot of rain in Montana this summer and fields that would – most summers -- have been tan remained green. The biologist told us that the stream restoration would narrow the channel in places, deepening it, making better places for trout to hide.  Old willows along the banks provide cover for birds and for deer, and shade for the trout.  The restoration may add some other trees, maybe cottonwoods that grow naturally along a stream bank.  An old snag, providing roosting eagles a clear view of the pasture to the west, rises above the willows.  

We followed the stream east, then crossed through tall grass covering an erstwhile mill site, the place where farmers from surrounding towns brought their grain in the early part of the 20th century.  Cutting back to the creek through waist-high grass, we arrived at the beaver dam that divides the creek into two streams.  The dam has created a little falls and a broad pool. There is also a mess of beaver-felled trees and half-chewed trees that needs  only a little more beaver activity before they, too, fall.  Beavers have made a true wild place of our stream.   A year ago a trapper pulled two 70 pound male beavers out of here.      

When, one day, somebody else lives in our house,  the land they’ll get with it is protected land.  The easement is forever.  With luck, the surrounding ranches will continue as ranchland, keeping open this sweeping landscape.   In the name of the Harrison/DeSmet rainbow, may this little piece of earth, and all its birds and mammals, be healthy.    

Copyright © 2009 Ruth Rudner