By Katy Spence
Hannah Hernandez’s favorite place is deep in the Cabinet Mountains: hidden lakes, borne from snowmelt. That is, when her favorite place is not Flathead Lake, where she lives on her sailboat for five months of the year.
“If I had to define a concept of freedom, it’s being out on a body of water being propelled by the wind,” Hannah said. “You’re so immersed in the elements.”
Hannah’s Montana roots run deep. Her father, Cesar Hernandez, and mother, Colleen Hinds, settled in Heron in 1973. Although they were in a log cabin a ways off the main road, the young people found community with other like-minded folks looking to be closer to nature and work toward its protection.
In those days, Cesar befriended Mike Comola, and they founded Northwest Citizens for Wilderness (NWCF) in 1974 to protect and promote roadless area designation as wilderness. NWCW merged with the Cabinet Resource Group (CRG) in the early ’80s. Over the years, Cesar has worked with communities around the state to help form groups to fight ill-advised mining projects, such as the Rock Creek Alliance (RCA). CRG has served as an incubator for other conservation organizations such as the Yaak Valley Forest Council, RCA, and the Citizens Action Network.
Cesar also met one of MEIC’s early executive directors, and the two organizations have worked together for decades to fight damaging mining proposals in the Cabinet Mountains.
“Cabinet Resources Group has been involved with MEIC for 40 years at least,” Cesar said. “When we needed expertise that we didn’t have, especially legal issues, MEIC was really helpful in providing those contacts and bits and pieces of strategy.”
Colleen said Cesar is a fierce advocate for the environment.
“If it’s a fight, he’s on the front line,” Colleen said. “He wrote letters for every lumber sale, for anything.”
Colleen said as a former nurse, her activism occurred closer to home. Growing up, she and her sisters formed an outdoor club and called themselves the “Wild Woods Women.”
“I had a blessed childhood, to be able to run free in the woods, to build forts, and climb things,” Colleen said. “It’s getting now that if you want to do that, you have to have money. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Colleen served as the president of CRG and is now on the board of directors for the organization. Colleen feels in tune with the natural world surrounding the Heron log cabin and wanted to pass that appreciation on to her kids, Hannah and Shiloh.
“I’m really proud my kids have picked up on that love of nature,” she said. “They got that like baby food when they were young.”
Hannah’s earliest memories are also all about being outside. As a young child, she liked to wander. Colleen would fasten a bell onto the two-year-old so she could keep track of where Hannah would wander next. But she didn’t discourage her children from being outside – far from it.
“My love affair for the outdoors and the mountains was nurtured by mom,” Hannah said. “When we were older, she would take me and my brother hiking all over the Cabinets.”
Hannah said she earned the title of “environmentalist” from her classmates early on, but she didn’t take any guff about it. From a young age, Cesar would take Hannah with him to public comment meetings for timber sales. As the only kid and often the only female in the room, Hannah quickly learned how to talk with people who disagreed with her. Many of her classmates came from mining families, so they naturally butted heads on mining issues. But she learned an important lesson from those conversations.
“There are those who always say, ‘It’s jobs or the environment,’” Hannah said. “I’ve always felt that was such a limiting conversation, and that we could actually find win-win-win situations. But that takes a lot more creativity than ‘business as usual.’”
Like her father, Hannah’s earliest activism was in the middle of the fight. But as time has gone on, Hannah’s approach has become more relational and draws from philosophies that focus on engaging people and growing their understanding of our relationship with the natural world and our impact on future generations. She said MEIC is a strong advocate for ensuring a livable world for future generations.
“If anybody has a vested concern for the world and the Montana that their children’s children’s children will inherit, they should be active with MEIC,” Hannah said. “MEIC’s activism is really on behalf of future generations, and ensuring they have a healthy, sustainable, viable Montana.”
It’s an attitude that runs in the family. Hannah’s brother, Shiloh, is an environmental lawyer who often works closely with MEIC, and their half-sister, Taleah, is one of 16 youth plaintiffs in the landmark Held v Montana case.
“My kids know how they were raised,” Cesar said. “They benefited from [spending time outdoors] and want to pass it on to their kids.”
When he’s not advocating for Montana’s mountains and waterways or helping guide other organizations doing the same, Cesar is the principle mechanic for Hannah’s sailboat on Flathead Lake.
And though their paths of environmental activism are different, all paths lead back to Flathead Lake during the summers or to hidden alpine lakes in the Cabinets, where the family enjoys pristine pieces of the Montana they’re all working to protect.
This article was published in the March 2023 issue of Down To Earth.