By Anthony Pavkovich
Running south, I travel up a flowing artery of our ecosystem deeper into the wild heart of the range. The shrouded forest gives way to tundra and talus where first light finds me kicking steps up the last vestige of this winter’s snow and racing the rising sun along an exposed ridgeline towards the summit. Basking in the glow of the breaking day atop Montana’s Hyalite Peak, on the northern edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), I pause for breath, taking a moment to relax, to appreciate.
Spread out before me is the sprawling ranges, dense forests, and roaring rivers of the largest intact ecosystem in the lower forty-eight. In the soft light of dawn, the Tetons glow in the distance, over a hundred miles away on the southern edge of the GYE. The volcanic mass of the Absarokas breaks the horizon below the rising sun, and the Gallatin watershed, part of the headwaters of the Missouri, falls away behind me.
As the sun rises higher, I turn my back north on my old home and the city of Bozeman that defines the northern edge of this ecosystem. Smiling, I recognized how much of this landscape remains part of our commons, public lands to be shared by all. Miles of common ground spread out under my feet, so much of it personally unexplored and full of possibility after a winter at rest.
The Greater Yellowstone, a 20-million-acre mosaic of land, is an island of underdeveloped habitat in this overdeveloped world. Remarkably, it is still home to roughly 700 roaming grizzly bears, thundering herds of bison, wary wolves, mountain lions, and wandering wolverines. Throughout the high country, there are gnarled, climate-threatened whitebark pine forests and quickly-vanishing alpine glaciers. The GYE is made up of millions of acres of high alpine peaks, vast sagebrush plains, and countless free-flowing rivers in a checkerboard of National Forest, state, and private land. At its core sits Yellowstone National Park. It is an untamed place.
This largely public landscape seemed nearly endless, infinite. Last summer that naivety changed.
Back then I continued to follow this ridgeline, stretching south before me away from Hyalite Peak, along the bony and sinuous crest of the Gallatin Range onwards to America’s first National Park, beyond the crumbling Absarokas, and over the still snowy Beartooths to the edge of the ecosystem and the start of the sweeping prairie that encompasses eastern Montana. This landscape felt immense until I left from my house and ran 240 miles across this ecosystem in the span of a week, an adventure we dubbed Common Ground.
By defining home to be the places you can reach on foot, from your front door, my idea of home has become a whole lot bigger. Measuring home in this way, I’ve had to reevaluate my sense of scale and place.
Now, in the months since finishing the trip I’ve come to wonder - how do we turn this awe into action, into advocacy, into continued protection?
How do we best protect this landscape and promote the idea that we are, as a nation, willing to set aside large spaces from development for the benefit and continuation of an entire ecosystem? Right now, roads cut through the critical core of this landscape leaving tracks and scars. Dangerous sulfide gold mines are proposed above world-renowned rivers and wildlife is fighting for space among vacation homes for survival.
I realize that even though this ecosystem is one of our largest protected spaces, it isn't really that big at all, nor is it protected forever. If I can cross it in the short span of a week, what about migrating elk and mule deer, young grizzly bears in search of new territory, or wolverines searching for solitude? Two hundred and fifty miles is a tiny fraction of what they need. At the same time, it is the best we have and therefore we need to continue to strongly advocate for this wild landscape’s continued existence.
This year, instead of attempting another ultra-adventure, I’ve chosen to use my energy and time to speak up and advocate for this place I value as home. By taking energy away from my running, I’m freeing up time to put effort back into my community and to fight for this landscape.
While I’ve been focusing on large-scale forest planning with the Custer Gallatin National Forest, public engagement as a board member for the Montana Wilderness Association, and holding politicians accountable as an concerned citizen, I don’t suggest we give up our trail ambitions, either. Instead, think about making small commitments like volunteering for a trail work day in your area or donating to a nonprofit whose work you appreciate.
Show that you value your home place. Speak up for it. Then, go out and enjoy your backyard.
Anthony Pavkovich is a writer, photographer, human-powered adventurer, and advocate residing along Montana’s border with Yellowstone National Park. His work is inspired and shaped by the incredible abundance of wild and public land surrounding his home. To view his portfolio, visit anthonypavkovich.com or find him on Instagram @as.pavkovich.