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Thomas J. Elpel
Author, Builder, Educator, and Conservationist

About Tom: Résumé | Books | Videos | Programs & Classes | Articles | News | Blog
Back to Nature: Experiential Education | Wilderness Survival | Botany | Conservation
Sustainable Living: Green Building | Green Economics | Green Energy

Tom Elpel at Shoshone Landing on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

      "Lost Tomahawk is now a public access site, giving canoers and other boaters an area to stop and camp or picnic or put out along the Jefferson River. To acquire the $270,000 site, the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter received money from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust as well as additional grant money and $40,000 in cash donations from "ordinary Montanans" who believed in the project, said Tom Elpel, president of the chapter."

-- Susan Dunlap, The Montana Standard
A long-lost tomahawk makes history along the Jefferson River

Conservation from a Conservative Viewpoint
"If you want more ducks, you need more duck hunters."

Mallard Duck.

      Teddy Roosevelt was possibly the first President to seriously address conservation as a national issue. He was a pragmatic conservationist, favoring use, but not abuse, of our natural resources. He played a significant role in the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service, intended to steward our public forests, along with the designation of five national parks and eighteen national monuments.

      Roosevelt's conservation views were humancentric. The parks, monuments, and national forests he advocated for were intended to preserve nature and natural resources for people. He was not an overboard environmentalist, trying to protect nature by locking people out, but rather a conservationist, working to conserve nature and natural wonders for future generations. Roosevelt was a conservative in the true sense of the word, and a Republican.

      Ideologically, I identify with Teddy Roosevelt in many ways, and I consider myself more conservative than liberal. Fiscally, I am a conservative to the max, having succeeded in life by achieving prosperity on relatively little income. In addition, I'm not a big fan of government regulation, and I don't believe big government is effective at much of anything. I also think it is a mistake to protect nature by telling people they are not allowed to touch it or use it. Like Roosevelt, my conservation ideology is humancentric. I believe that humanity must be part of the conservation equation. It is not because our species deserves special standing, but because any policy that excludes people is ultimately doomed to fail.

Bow and arrow target practice with grizzly bear.       Teddy Roosevelt struggled with health issues as a child, especially asthma. He was often sick and therefore homeschooled, where he had the freedom to study natural history. To overcome his health problems, Roosevelt developed a physically active and adventurous lifestyle and a love for hunting and camping.

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills. by Thomas J. Elpel.       Like Roosevelt, I struggled with health problems, especially asthma, as a child. I lived in an oxygen tent for several weeks as a baby. In elementary school, I often stayed home sick. I studied natural history in my own way, learning about edible and medicinal plants, later hauling old bones into the college for identification. The more time I spent outdoors, the healthier I became, and I developed a love for hiking, camping, and adventuring. Wilderness survival skills became my primary focus as a teenager and young adult. I spent thousands of hours building shelters, harvesting wild foods, and stalking and observing wild game, as described in my book, Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Livinng Skills

Large primitive shelter hut.       These types of skills are essential for survival, not so much to keep oneself alive, but to insure the survival of nature, wild places, and ultimately civilization. We are rapidly creating a populace that is totally disconnected from nature. Even in rural areas, our young people don't necessarily go outside anymore to explore the fields and woods or to climb mountains and camp at alpine lakes. And those who do get out on foot to explore the backcountry are instructed to practice "leave no-trace" camping, to "take only pictures, and leave only footprints." Nature is reduced to mere wallpaper. It is something to look at, but not to interact with, and frankly, that's boring.

      Some people might like to find the parking lot empty at wilderness trailheads, but it saddens me. It saddens me because I know that wilderness protection only lasts as long as there are advocates to support it. The fewer people there are hiking and camping in the woods, the fewer people there are to lobby for its continued protection. If we want to protect nature, first we have to assure people that it is okay to touch it and allow them the freedom to go thrashing and bashing through the woods, building shelters, cutting firewood, and killing stuff.

Roasting duck over fire pit coals.       The most successful conservation efforts are typically driven by those who actually use nature. For example, groups like Ducks Unlimited are highly successful at funding and lobbying for programs to increase waterfowl habitat. Duck hunters might seem callous to groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA.) for blasting the poor birds out of the sky with shotguns, yet duck hunters actively work to increase the duck population. The bottom line is that, if you want more ducks, you need more duck hunters. Nothing could be worse for ducks than for PETA to be successful in convincing everyone to give up hunting and to stay home and surf the internet instead.

      The risk of a detached populace is that people cannot manage or legislate resources they know nothing about. We are constantly extracting natural resources like water, wood, coal, wheat, and hamburgers from our farms and forests. How can people make informed management decisions that impact forest health or soil percolation when they've never really gone outside? A degree from Harvard or Yale might look great on a resume, but it can be downright dangerous if it is not backed up with real-world experience. Can we really trust someone in a leadership position if they have never been beyond the lawn grass to explore the real world?

Trout cradled in hands.       Like Teddy Roosevelt, I take a humancentric approach to conservation. The most important conservation work I do is teaching wilderness skills to kids, in part because they are the resource managers of the future. However, I also recognize the need to address conservation issues directly. I have been chased by bulldozers all my life, and I have grieved as special places were paved over for houses, churches, and shopping malls.

Living Homes.       I am not anti-development. I have built several houses myself, as detailed in my book Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction and on the DirtCheapBuilder.com website. But the U.S. population is projected to double, triple, or quadruple this century, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is not hard to do the math to see what is in store for places like Montana. If the world population increases by up to 50 percent, and other countries are too crowded already, then we get a steady increase in immigration. But the east and west coasts are already overpopulated, so where can we expect all those people to go? It is not unreasonable to imagine that a rural state like Montana could explode to ten times its current population. Right now is our last best chance to save what we love about the last best place.

Carp hunting success with bow and arrow.       That was my primary motivation for founding the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, to sustain the quality of life and open space that Montanans love, and to enhance and preserve the opportunity for Montanans to paddle, camp, and explore the same fascinating landscape that Lewis and Clark first documented two hundred years ago.

      Continued development is inevitable in the Jefferson River Valley and across Montana. Although we cannot stop development, we do not need to trash all that we cherish, either. By finding ways to encourage development within existing communities, we can absorb a larger population without houses sprawling across the countryside and without turning the Jefferson River into a rip-rapped channel lined with houses.

      I think Teddy Roosevelt would share my view if he were alive today, and I am certain he would be deeply disappointed to see what the Republican Party has become. In addition to his work as a conservationist, Roosevelt was a trust buster who broke up corporations that grew large enough to abuse their power. Yet, in Montana and nationally, today's Republicans have become puppets to big businesses, dismantling environmental protections at every turn, and some legislators have proposed selling to the highest bidder the National Forests that Roosevelt helped create.

      Here in Montana, Republican legislators even worked to give corporations the power of eminent domain to condemn individual private property for profit-making ventures. True conservatives like myself are left with the unappealing and unavoidable necessity of voting for Democrats.

Cities in the Wilderness book, by Bruce Babbitt.       Like Roosevelt, I am all in favor of a good park or monument to preserve our natural wonders for future generations. However, as Bruce Babbit, President Clinton's Secretary of the Interior, noted in his book Cities in the Wilderness, the biggest conservation challenges are now on private lands, more than on public lands.

      Realistically, we cannot legislate and regulate our way to sensible land-use planning. Nobody likes to be told what to do with their land, least of all Montanans. Zoning isn't sustainable if it pisses off the constituency. I would like to see sensible development away from the Jefferson River and all of Montana's great rivers, but not at the cost of trampling over landowner rights. As Babbit emphasized, successful land management must come through partnerships between the private and public sectors and nongovernmental organizations.

Canoeing the Jefferson River near Sappington, MT.       As a conservation organization, it would be nice to wave a magic wand and protect the entire Jefferson River from development. I would love to buy up all the land along the river - or at least conservation easements on it - to protect it from future development. However, neither we nor anyone else has that kind of money or power. We must therefore work with the tools we have.

Builder's Guide brochure by Jefferson River Canoe Trail, MT.       It is tempting to reach for the big stick, to call for zoning and setbacks to protect the river. However, I am not convinced that such an effort would be successful, and even if it were successful in pushing development back X number of feet, I'm not convinced that it would make a substantial difference. Many of the biggest eyesores are constructed well away from the water, up on a bluff where everyone else must look at them. As one who has been on both sides of the coin - builder and conservationist - I know that people are not necessarily aware of the impacts of their actions.

      Many landowners have bulldozed Eden to build a house, only to recognize their mistake when it was too late. Some houses sprouting up along the Jefferson are in danger of being washed away by flood waters. Most are built too close to the river, where cold air settles in on winter nights, and mosquitoes reign supreme all summer. Just about all of them are eyesores that everyone else must endure.

Canoeing the Jefferson River near Sappington, MT.       Our organization produced a Builder's Guide: Commonsense Do's and Don't for Building a Home along the Jefferson River to help educate potential builders. Now we need to do more public outreach to spread that message, possibly in partnership with local realtors. Real estate agents serve in a unique position to shape conservation and to advise potential builders on the pros and cons of developing certain sites. While it is easy to demonize realtors as the source of the problem, selling building sites for profit, it is also true that they live and work here for many of the same reasons we do. They suffer the same loss when scenic, recreational, or ecologically essential lands are bulldozed for more sprawling house construction.

      Although our successes are modest, our group has worked with local realtors in the effort to secure vulnerable properties for conservation and public use. Our first acquisition was a 4.7-acre parcel along the lower Jefferson River near Three Forks, now known as Shoshone Landing. Our second acquisition was a 30-acre parcel near Waterloo, now known as Lost Tomahawk. The previous owner intended to build a mansion on the bluff overlooking the river, but thankfully changed his mind. We purchased the property with the aid of grant funds and donations. Lost Tomahawk and Shoshone Landing have both become walk-in fishing access sites and paddlers' campsites on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. With addiitional campsites located on isolated parcels of public land along the river, we are effectively building our own linear "national park" as part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

      As Roosevelt recognized, our land use decisions today will greatly impact the life of those who come after us. Here in Montana, quality of life and quality of environment are largely the same thing. It is up to us to pass along a high quality of environment to the future generations.

Jefferson River Canoe Trail logo.
Read more. Check out the
Jefferson River Canoe Trail

      Looking for life-changing resources? Check out these books by Thomas J. Elpel:

Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.
Green
Prosperity
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit
Roadmap
to Reality
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Living
Homes
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
Participating
in Nature
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.
Foraging the
Mountain West
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
Botany
in a Day
Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids
Shanleya's
Quest

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