Guest blog post written by Ben Williamson
As a person more comfortable in a hoodie with a fly rod in my hand, it felt strange to walk the polished stairs under the capitol’s rotunda, wearing a tie, and carrying a binder full of bill drafts. As I left my seat in the hearing room, a fellow supporter of the bill nudged me and whispered, “You deserve to be here just as much as anyone else.” As I walked past a line of opponents of the bill, I felt like a deer under the green eyes of a wolf pack. I walked to the podium and looked out to a committee of glaring state senators. I received looks of “why are you here?” others of “it’s okay, young one, don’t be nervous,” and others of “when will this be over?” Yes, my knees were shaking, my palms were sweating, and there was a faint quiver in my voice. But I delivered my message—a message based on logic, with science in mind, and the hope that we can live with predators in our state.
As the NRDC Winter Wildlife and Energy Intern, I had the rare opportunity to immerse myself in the world of advocacy, politics and questions of land ethics. My coworkers—Matt, Zack, and Allison—all offered me guidance, autonomy, and, most importantly, inspiration to persist in this field. Despite lingering doubts, it now feels possible to find a career aligned with my personal values.
I learned an exceptional amount in a short time. I learned how to research and present complex issues, such as salmon, dams, swift foxes, and pollinators. I learned how difficult it is for an introduced bill to become state law. I learned how to build a relationship with someone who holds opposite beliefs than mine. I also learned that an office in which dogs outnumber humans is a very good thing.
I started this internship at a time of major political and social shift. The challenge of environmental advocacy has never been greater. This upheaval pushed me to consider the contradictions, the dichotomies, and the hypocrisies prevalent in the modern environmental and political landscape.
My home state is Colorado—a beautiful state, but one that exists in two spheres. The geography itself divides communities and wild places, society and nature, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. When I moved to Montana for school, I thought I entered a state without this anthropogenic division. I made a deliberate effort to leave the Missoula bubble and learn about rural Montana. From a turkey farm in Power, Montana, to an herbalist’s home on the Blackfeet Reservation to the cattle fields of central Montana—I began to gain a more complete picture of the state. I quickly realized this gap may not be as geographically obvious as Colorado’s, but it exists and it is growing.
I entered the state capitol as a representative of NRDC. The atmosphere was foreign to me; I questioned the will of the lawmakers to make forward progress. It made me want to fight against the folks on the opposite side. On a car ride back from Helena, Zack reminded me that conservation is not about my personal beliefs on what is right or wrong. Zack recited a quote from Rumi that will always take on new meaning, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.” We must remember that our goal is to do what is best for the animals in our state and the ecosystems where they live, even if that means compromising with the other side.
In Montana, there are many ideas and thoughts on how the land should be managed. We all want to protect what we love about this state. If you love to hunt, you want a healthy elk population in the Little Belts. If you love to mountain bike, you want trails to ride in the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area. If you raise cattle on the Rocky Mountain Front, you want wolves to stay away from your herd. If you love to fly fish, you want to save the Smith River. If you grow cherries in the Flathead Valley, you want bees to return every year and pollinate. If you love walking on soft trails in the forest, you want our national parks and national forests and to remain as they are.
Yet in the midst of our fervor for what we love, we forget that our different ways of life depend entirely on the ecosystems that support these pursuits. Instead of further dividing our state’s base, I hope we can continue to move forward together to protect our lands and wildlife.
These thoughts made me think about the mental images stamped on my memory. For me, the parallel summits of Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker that framed by my childhood bedroom window permeate my dreams and thoughts. If you grew up in Bozeman, it’s the outline of Mt. Baldy. If you’re from Missoula, it’s the intimate proximity of Mt. Sentinel. If you’re from Seattle, it’s the immensity of Mt. Rainier. If you live in San Francisco, it’s the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. No matter where you are and what you are consumed by, you can always extract these images from the depths of memory. They bring comfort, they bring us home, and they remind us that we belong to this planet. This knowledge alone—this memory that you belong somewhere should be enough to want to protect this land.
In closing, I am reminded by a conversation with Zack in which he told me that in order to create change, it requires nothing less than a massive effort. We need to move past the need for social and cultural acceptance; gain humility to change our own behaviors; and work together toward compromise.
I’m leaving NRDC with a renewed sense of direction and motivation in an unknown future.
Ben Williamson was the Winter Wildlife & Energy Intern in NRDC's Northern Rockies Office in Bozeman, Montana, this past winter. Ben is a graduate of the University of Montana, where he received a degree in Ecology and Organismal Biology. Since graduating, he has worked as a field technician in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem surveying whitebark pine and as an environmental educator throughout Montana. Ben’s internship was made possible by a generous grant from Robert and Dana Reisse in memory of their son Andrew.