Spreading the word to fight for our public lands.
Don Thomas has spent his entire life outdoors. Although he worked for years as a physician, he has also been a commercial fisherman, bush pilot, and guide. He now writes full time; current responsibilities include serving as co-editor of Traditional Bowhunter, editor-at-large for Retriever Journal, and masthead positions with Gray's Sporting Journal, Fish Alaska, and others. Don freelances regularly for national magazines that cover fly fishing, wingshooting, and bowhunting, and he has authored 20 books on these subjects with widely respected publishers. Although most familiar with outdoor opportunities in Montana and Alaska, where he has lived all of his adult life, Don has traveled extensively in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Siberia, and the South Pacific. Above all, he enjoys spending time in the outdoors and working with his wife Lori, herself an accomplished outdoorswoman and photographer. Don is a long-time PLWA member and supporter, and our summer 2021 PLWA Access Ambassador.
PLWA: You are known not only for your outdoor writing, but also as a passionate advocate for public access. Where did this drive to sound the call for protecting access to Montana's public lands and waters come from?
Don: As a matter of principle, it just stands to reason that the public should be able to access public land. On a personal level, my own passion for the cause is a response to change. I grew up in a rural area where kids could basically hunt, fish, or play on almost anyone’s farm. Over the 50 years I’ve lived in Montana, I’ve seen a profound shift in landowner demographics as family farms and ranches have been sold to wealthy out-of-state interests. While some of those new owners are indeed generous about access to their land, most are not. At the same time, farmers and ranchers are realizing the economic potential of their wildlife by leasing hunting rights to outfitters (as they have the right to do). The vast majority of their clients are wealthy nonresidents. The upshot is that public lands have become the last resort for Montana resident outdoorsmen of ordinary means.
PLWA: Montana is a state with a high number of recreational public-land-and-water users. Why do you think public access is facing so many challenges in the current political landscape?
Don: This is an odd paradox, as I have pointed out elsewhere. It is puzzling that a state in which nearly half the resident voters buy hunting and fishing licenses could elect an administration and legislature so openly hostile to public-land concerns. Part of this phenomenon reflects simple partisanship. Today, many voters will reflexively vote for the party to which they’ve sworn allegiance even if that means voting against their own best interest on certain issues. Furthermore, as a general rule in political discussions, one can’t go wrong by following the money. That isn’t always easy to do given the basic corruption of our campaign-finance system, but a lot of wealthy parties have an interest in tying up public lands for their own purposes.
PLWA: Culturally, we are moving towards a more sedentary lifestyle, with hours spent in front of screens and keyboards. What do you feel time outside in the natural world and evenings spent with the written word offer future generations?
Don: The basic premise here is certainly correct. Ours will be the first generation of Americans with a shorter lifespan than our parents. While this phenomenon is multi-factorial, our increasingly sedentary lifestyle is certainly significant. To address it, I much prefer heading to the mountains on foot to running on a treadmill in a gym full of desperate, sweaty people. Letting kids sit in front of video games should be punishable as child abuse.
PLWA: What, in your opinion, is the most important thing readers can do to protect access to their public lands and waters?
Don: Two words: Get involved. For most of my life, hunters and anglers have been happy to leave the political heavy-lifting to others, while they went hunting and fishing (as, I’m now ashamed to admit, did I). That will no longer stand. In response to the crisis we’re discussing, a number of Montana organizations are actively addressing these concerns, including PLWA. Every outdoor enthusiast enjoying Montana public land should support them. During the next election cycle, grill your candidates for state and local office about their positions on public lands and don’t let them feed you any bullshit. (During an election, it’s hard to find a Montana candidate who doesn’t swear undying support for public-land access even though they’ve been working to hinder it for years.) Here in Montana, we have the numbers to win these battles. We just need to mobilize them and get them pointed in the right direction.