HAMILTON – Stewart Brandborg speaks in slow, precise, fully formed paragraphs.
“Lots of people never set foot in a wilderness sanctuary, but they like the idea, the concept that somewhere Nature is working her will in the absence of the heavy hand of man,” he explains. “Whether it’s a trip to the zoo, or a heavily used city park, there’s something in the American people, inherited from their grandfathers and grandmothers who were the frontier vanguard that developed this country, for the outdoors. Even if they’ve never had a camping trip, never sampled Nature, they are an alliance of people who speak for unspoiled landscapes, rivers, mountains and deserts.”
Brandborg has been shepherding that alliance nearly all his 89 years. He’s one of the last surviving witnesses to the creation of the Wilderness act of 1964, picking up the standard after its drafter, Howard Zahniser, died of a heart attack just weeks before President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on Sept. 3, 50 years ago.
“He was one of the originals who was right there,” said Brock Evans, former top legal representative of the Sierra Club during the Wilderness Act’s birthing and now board member of the Endangered Species Coalition in Washington, D.C. “He was a master of getting grassroots people who actually live in the threatened country together, and bringing them to learn the habitat of Washington. He taught me about the importance of grassroots organizing. From Brandy, I learned how to be a warrior and a fighter.”
After an early career chasing mountain goats for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Brandborg developed parallel talents for inspiring movements and guiding those movements through the Byzantine maze of government process. He left the mountains for the marble halls in 1954 to work for the National Wildlife Federation. In 1960, he joined Zahniser in the middle of the push to enact a Wilderness Act.
“Zahniser wrote this bill on an old white tablet with blue lines on his kitchen table,” Brandborg said. “I don’t think the term – I know damned well the term ‘wilderness’ wasn’t in common usage yet. But Zahniser was relentless in keeping attention on the only agency that used the term and that dedicated wilderness lands, because of the insights of a few in the U.S. Forest Service.”
Brandborg referred in particular to Bob Marshall, the Forest Service explorer and founder of the Wilderness Society, whom he once met hiking through the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. Marshall died in 1939 at the age of 38. Two years later, The Forest Service set aside 950,000 acres of Montana’s Rocky Mountains in his memory – what’s now the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
But there was no established way of preserving similar landscapes. The nation’s dam-building era was underway, and controversial projects like the Bureau of Land Management’s Upper Colorado Storage Project were inundating heritage sites like the original Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.
“No one had ever stopped the BLM,” Brandborg said. “It had this incomparable network of supporters with a thirst for water and energy. Its leaders used the skills and capabilities of the media very well. But building this dam, inside that unique desert environment of Dinosaur National Monument, would be an earth-shattering precedent.”
The earth took a long time to crack. Rep. Wayne Aspinall, D-Colorado, chaired the House Interior Committee and resisted all efforts to clear the Wilderness Act for passage. Despite two approvals in the Senate and 17 hearings in the House, Aspinall wouldn’t let it come out of committee for eight years.
The first drafts of the bill placed all of the wild lands within the jurisdictions of three agencies – the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, Brandborg recalled. Once an agency declared an area to be truly wild, it was included. Aspinall thought that was too much agency power at the expense of natural resource industries.
“Finally, President Kennedy called Aspinall to express his interest in seeing a bill come out of committee,” Brandborg said. “That changed the field.”
But what changed Kennedy? Part was the strategy of Brandborg and Zahniser to seek support by mailing hundreds of thousands of Americans information about the wilderness issue. They managed that, Brandborg admitted, by the controversial but quiet use of Congress members’ franking privileges to save on postage. Another factor may have been an unnamed member of Kennedy’s budget team who kept bending the president’s ear on the matter.
Wilderness Watch Director George Nikas said another of Brandborg’s talents is not letting organizations get in the way of people’s shared interests.
“He didn’t care if you were Audubon or Sierra Club or unaffiliated,” Nikas said. “He wasn’t about building organizations – it was about building support for wilderness. He’s always been a master at that.”
Aspinall’s price was agency discretion. Instead of letting the federal land managers create their own wildernesses, he gave the power to Congress. The 1964 Wilderness Act came complete with 9 million acres of starter landscapes.
“But the Wilderness Society had not expected the immense job ahead if each project had to come through separate review,” Brandborg said. “So I started traveling with a stack of membership cards, from Montana to Arizona, all the old Frontier Airlines states. I’d call ahead and say I want to talk about the wilderness law – can we meet for breakfast or lunch, in your home? It needed ongoing leadership.”
Fifty years later, 107 million acres are in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Not counting the 57.4 million acres in Alaska, that’s about 2.5 percent of the landbase in the continental United States.
Brandborg got his introduction to wild country on a horse behind his father, Guy Brandborg, who was supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest for 20 years. They traveled along the Salmon River, the Magruder Corridor, deep into the Selway. Those were the places Brandborg thought about when he tried to inspire others to the wilderness cause.
Half a century later, the man who helped protect so much wild country spends much of his time in a wheelchair.
“With a couple canes, I can walk a mile,” Brandborg said. “I go 600 yards this way, 600 yards back. That’s what life does to you. It goes so damn fast.”
His big office – same size as his living room – bears the marks of a long career in wilderness policy. A mounted mountain goat head and several pictures and paintings of the same recall his early career researching the first complete life history of the elusive mammal. Fishing rods stand racked neatly on one side, while a long library of books covers another. Across the floor, file boxes labeled “The Wilderness Law 1956-64” and “Arctic Refuge” await delivery to the University of Montana archives.
Scattered in between are traces of his later activism. Since leaving Washington, D.C., Brandborg has kept busy with his own grassroots, helping found Friends of the Bitterroot and Bitterrooters for Planning to focus energy on challenges he could see out his window.
“He’s so knowledgeable about policy,” said longtime friend and co-activist Larry Campbell. “I put it less to political cleverness than to the way he does business. Brandy is so open and honest and winning, it’s remarkable how he has sparked people to work together in consensus. He just bushwhacked through Congress. He didn’t really know the way.”
And he’s remained a player in the national wilderness debate. As board member and former director of Wilderness Watch, he’s helped formulate much of the environmentalist opposition to Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. While that bill would designate the first 600,000 acres of new Montana wilderness areas in 30 years, Brandborg said the methods used would destroy the thing they’re trying to save.
“The damn wilderness law is clear and explicit in the designation of wilderness,” Brandborg said. “Proposals must be developed through the agencies and go through the congressional process. The Tester bill’s designation of wilderness in absence of agency designation violates that procedure. It leaves open the door for any member of Congress to say what is and isn’t wilderness. And that sets a tragic precedent, where any member of Congress can abrogate long-standing policy.”
But he also acknowledged the risk that political delaying tactics and cultural changes could make it impossible for any landscape to qualify under the 1964 law’s definition.
“That’s a valid apprehension,” Brandborg said. “What do we do if we get human flight with jet-packs? It’s a matter of sharpening, of bringing to the top the definition of wilderness. There’s a multitude of people who know the meaning of wilderness and take exception to use by mechanical means. We said ‘no’ to chain saws, and can still go up there with cross-cut saws. Do we have the commitment and strength to say ‘no’ to snowmobiles?”
The man now needing a motorized wheelchair to get around his home still maintains that motorized assistance is a defining quality of wilderness – land stays wild when people can’t use their technological wonders to overcome its barriers.
“There’s one attribute – wild country – and we must build on that,” Brandborg said. “If we keep it free as much as humanly possible from all things humans bring to the land, we can preserve it in a way that keeps natural processes intact and functional. Wild is wild.”