Well remembered: Quiet Karl Ohs rode herd without using his spurs

A ferocious wind drove the bank of menacing black clouds closer by the minute. My climbing partner George Schunk and I had just climbed the last summit in what we thought was probably the first-ever high traverse of the Tobacco Root Mountains. After five days of wind, sun, rain and snow, most of it spent surrounded by sky at 10,000 feet of elevation or higher, we split our last cheese stick and dried-out bagel while contemplating the treacherous ski descent from the high and wild ridges to the valley below. As we signed into the summit register on Hollow Top, there staring back at us was the name Karl Ohs who, with family members, had climbed the peak the year before.

I laughed to think of the Montana serendipity that finds so many of us knowing each other in so many different ways. Here was the name of Ohs, whom I knew as a rancher and Majority Whip for the Republicans in the state House, high on a rocky summit where, undoubtedly, he too took in the inspiring view of the Madison Valley, the long chain of snow-capped peaks, and the sparkling aquamarine lakes below. Down there, I knew, was the Ohs ranch, where the grass was quickly greening.

My reverie was cut short by a tremendous bolt of lightning from the black cloud that now seriously threatened us as we beat it back down to our waiting skis in the saddle below. As hail pounded down, lightning blazed and thunder filled the skies, we put thoughts of politicians far from our minds and got down to the business at hand—trying to stay alive long enough to get off the steep headwall to the sheltering pines.

As luck would have it, the guardian angel of crazy climbers was once again called into service to save us from ourselves. Soon we were hiking the last miles out to the Pony trailhead through the burgeoning masses of wildflowers tickled to the surface by the warm hand of early spring.

It had been a decade since that day when, suddenly and sadly, last week’s death of Karl Ohs brought the memory rushing back: Karl Ohs, the quiet guy in the cowboy hat who somehow managed to ride the rough lands of political turmoil without sticking in the spurs.

Ohs first came to the legislature during the 1995 session. The Republicans were at the height of their ascendancy then, holding fully two-thirds majorities of both the Senate and the House while Marc Racicot sat comfortably in the Governor’s Office.

It was, truth be told, a brutal session. Realtors, ranchers and developers had joined the mining industry to engineer the greatest rollback of Montana’s environmental laws in the history of the state. Everything from surface and groundwater pollution to subdivisions to reclamation standards was fair game for the newly empowered Republicans and they were on a tear. The Democrats, in their tiny minority, were in no way capable of derailing the well-planned assault and, even worse, a number of Democrats from mining districts joined in wreaking havoc.

It was a session where, at least for an environmental lobbyist, it would have been easy to hold every member of the majority party in well-deserved disdain. But as happens so often, from despair is born hope. While Racicot and the Republicans were running roughshod over the environment, increasing carcinogens in our rivers and streams, and thumping those that got in their way, guys like Karl Ohs and a number of other ranching legislators were seriously considering the Future Fisheries Improvement Act brought forth by Bob Raney, a Democrat from Livingston.

The idea was simple: set up a direct-investment program to fix up the thousands of tiny streams across the state that serve as the spawning grounds for Montana’s famed wild trout populations. Instead of dumping millions into hatcheries, investing those millions in stream restoration for natural reproduction would allow Mother Nature to do what she does best—use natural selection to weed out the weak, keep the strong reproducing, and pass on genetic codes adapted to the different temperature, flows and water chemistry characteristics of Montana’s individual streams. Not only would it be good for the fish, it would be good for the downstream water users and, ultimately, add significant value to ranch property to have healthy wild trout populations on their lands.

As luck and a lot of struggle would have it, the idea made sense, gained momentum, and passed that session of the legislature which, in so many other ways, was so very dark for the environment. Notably, it wouldn’t have passed without the support of Ohs and the ranchers.

The circumstances by which most Montanans know and remember Karl Ohs, though, came in 1996. He was the guy who rode his horse alone into the Freeman Compound near Jordan where a tense and dangerous armed standoff with state and federal authorities had been ongoing for months. Nineteen times Ohs rode into the compound at the behest of the FBI to negotiate with the Freeman. Eventually, much to his credit, the standoff ended peacefully with no deaths on either side and Ohs received the FBI’s highest award. He also rose to hero status among his fellow Montanans, none of whom wanted to see a bloody conclusion to the incident.

From there Karl ascended to the position of House Majority Whip in the 1997 legislature and went on to become Lieutenant Governor in 2001. He chaired the state’s Drought Advisory Council and once again wrestled with the thorny problems of fisheries, farmers, and too little water to satisfy both.

Now, Karl has taken his last ride, off beyond the far ridge where none, not even crazy climbers, may follow. I think back to that day on Hollow Top, to his name in the summit register, and to the work we did together all through those years. And somehow I trust the trail ahead for Karl is as kind as the trail he left behind.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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