Karen Stevenson remembers talking to a Miles City Economic Development Council class this winter in Miles City about the Buttes, Breaks, and Badlands map published last fall by the Montana Wilderness Association.
Subtitled “Off the Beaten Path in Southeast Montana,” the two-sided map pinpoints dozens of parks, wildland areas, camping, hiking and birding locales, historic sites, areas of geologic and paleontological interest, battle sites, museums, restaurants and watering holes from Roundup to Alzada and Belfry to Sidney.
Most of the people in the class Stevenson addressed were from Miles City or nearby areas, but even they were amazed by the number and variety of outdoor opportunities in Eastern Montana, by all the things to see and do that were listed on the map.
“They got so excited about it,” Stevenson said. “It makes you realize that you’re living in a really amazing place that you would otherwise take for granted.”
Charlie Smillie, the Eastern Montana field director for the Montana Wilderness Association, in Billings, had similar feelings about the map. He grew up in Billings and has spent a lot of time hiking and camping, but “there’s all this stuff I’ve still never seen, like the Tongue River Breaks.”
The wilderness association is promoting the map again now, as people start gearing up for spring and summer outings. And just a few days ago, the association announced the launch of hike.wildmontana.org, Montana’s first online, statewide hiking guide.
On top of that, Smillie said, the association is also in the process of updating a brochure that was the inspiration for the Buttes, Breaks, and Badlands map—a brochure and map that served as a guide to the Terry Badlands, produced jointly by the Prairie County Economic Development Council and the Montana Wilderness Association.
National Geographic had already produced geotourism guides for the “Crown of the Continent,” centered on Glacier National Park, and for the Greater Yellowstone region, Smillie said, but it would have been too expensive to ask National Geographic to produce a similar map for southeastern Montana.
So the association “did it on the cheap,” Smillie said, raising funds a from a big group of supporters and relying on an AmeriCorps VISTA worker, Forrest Theisen, to do much of the research, travel, photography and writing.
“It was definitely a stroke of luck to have someone as capable as him,” Smillie said.
Among the places Theisen visited and described were the Chalk Buttes and Capitol Rock Natural Landmark near Ekalaka; the Moorhead Recreation Area and Buffalo Creek southwest of Broadus; the MonDak Heritage Center in Sidney; and the Cottonwood Travel Management Area near Belfry.
Stevenson was one of the editors on the project and she also contributed some writings that do much to capture the intense beauty of the region, as in this excerpt of her description of the Terry Badlands:
“This is the land that captivated Lady Evelyn Cameron at the turn of the twentieth century, which motivated her photographic legacy and volumes of diaries recording thirty years of frontier and homestead life in southeast Montana. That day on the ridge, Cameron’s great-great niece from England stood next to me. I wondered whether she could see the land through Evelyn’s lens. A red-tail hawk spiraled above the tawny, tinder-dry prairie while she scanned the view. She said, finally, ‘I can see why she stayed.’”
Stevenson and her husband live in Miles City now, but for many years they lived in Birney, where she taught eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse. She often held classes outside, and of their residence in Birney she said, “we basically camped in our house and lived outside.”
Sponsored by the Montana Wilderness Association, she has led wilderness hikes through the Terry Badlands for the past six or seven years. She loves experiencing the badlands through the eyes of people from other countries, and she loves reminding Montanans of the beauty of their home.
“Hopefully, we’ve provided the tools to make people curious,” she said of the Buttes, Breaks, and Badlands map. “I really believe that these public lands need to be protected, and the way you protect them is to get people to experience them.”
As the association was finishing work on the map last fall, the Bureau of Land Management was releasing final drafts of resource management plans for its Hi-Line, Miles City and Billings districts, plans that will guide development on several million acres of public land for the next 20 to 30 years.
The wilderness association helped persuade the BLM to substantially increase the number of places designated as “lands with wilderness characteristics,” defined as land in natural condition suitable for solitude and primitive recreation.
And while the plans do provide some protection for sage grouse habitat, the association was disappointed at how little land was given protection as wilderness. Smillie said the association still has high hopes for the management plan for the Lewistown district, which should be issued this spring or summer.
“The time is ripe for making a case for quiet recreation as a sustainable future for Eastern Montana,” Smillie said, pointing to a study by ECONorthwest, the results of which were released two weeks ago.
The study, commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts, looked at the economic contributions to communities made by people involved in non-motorized recreation on BLM-managed lands. It found that in 2014, 2.9 million “quiet recreation” visits to BLM lands in Montana generated $141 million in direct spending within 50 miles of recreation sites.
Smillie said Eastern Montana has always been an afterthought when it comes to wilderness protection, with interest and energy naturally gravitating toward the mountains of Western Montana.
But people are starting to realize that this “vastly underpopulated landscape” of southeastern Montana also deserves protection, he said.
“These are beautiful places that are under-protected globally … and we have them here in wild condition,” Smillie said.
Details: You can pick up a free copy of the Buttes, Breaks, and Badlands map at local chambers of commerce. You can also view it online or order one for $5 on the Montana Wilderness Association website.
The map was printed and produced with support from the MWA, the BLM, Southeast Montana Tourism, Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Dawson County Tourism Business Improvement District, National Park Service, Cinnabar Foundation, Miles City Business Improvement District, First Interstate Bank of Miles City and AmeriCorps VISTA.