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Wilderness advocates Bill Cunningham, Smoke Elser and Pat Williams share stories before the Wilderness Act conference at the University of Montana on Wednesday.

ROB CHANEY/Missoulian

There was a lot of gray hair on the stage as “The Imperative of Wilderness at 50 Years” conference started Wednesday evening.

“Today, we have a new guard that doesn’t know much about wilderness,” outfitter Smoke Elser told the packed ballroom at the University of Montana’s University Center. “That’s why we need you of the younger generation to pick up the torch and carry it into the future.”

Elser was joined by fellow torch-bearers former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, author and guide Bill Cunningham and UM Provost Perry Brown. The quartet each brought living links to the Wilderness Act of 1964’s “Storied Past and Troubled Future,” as the rest of the conference title puts it. Although as Mansfield Conference co-organizer Dane Scott observed, “Tonight is the storied past – we don’t get to the troubled future until Friday.”

The storied past had its share of trouble, Williams recalled. He told of an infamous congressional hearing at which he hoped to show Rep. Mo Udall, D-Arizona, how much Montanans liked wilderness.

“We got to Dillon and were met with a riot,” Williams said. “There were guns and knives and people screaming at us on the street. Afterward, Mo would tell people, ‘I’ve been to Montana and they have a funny way of saying hello. When we wave, we use all five fingers.’ ”

Cunningham said he believed the forces for and against wilderness designation remained relatively the same over the years, with advocates fighting to preserve a shrinking supply of high-quality places and opponents convinced they would be locked out of job opportunities with every new designation.

“Montana got five wilderness areas in the ’64 act,” Cunningham said. “Between 1964 and 1983, Montana doubled its contribution, up to 15 areas and 3.5 million acres. Then for 31 years, we haven’t designated a single acre.”

One thing that has changed is the political tactics in play. While the Wilderness Act passed with only one dissenting vote in the House of Representatives and 12 in the Senate, the concept became a political wedge issue in Montana’s 1988 election year.

Years of hearings had preceded the approval of the Great Bear and Absaroka-Beartooth wildernesses, and similar time was spent outlining the last Montana wilderness bill to make it through Congress in 1988.

That was Williams’ package of 1.2 million acres covering most of the state’s already qualified landscapes. It was the year Republican Conrad Burns challenged incumbent Democratic Sen. John Melcher, and President Ronald Reagan weighed in for Burns by killing the bill.

“That was the only time a president has vetoed a wilderness bill,” Williams said. “It was the most obscene political veto in environmental history.”

Cunningham called that incident a rallying point for future wilderness advocates to build their campaigns around.

“These things must come from the grassroots and from people who are passionate and have done their homework,” Cunningham said.

The Wilderness Act has provided a two-edged sword, he observed: It gives landscapes the greatest legal protection the American government can offer, but it requires overcoming the huge obstacles confronting any effort to pass a law in today’s Congress.

“Is wilderness elitist?” Cunningham asked the audience. “Is it just a place for young, fit people to hang out? I guess the impoverished can afford their ATVs and snowmobiles, while only the rich can afford a pair of waffle-stompers.”

“We need to support wilderness for its own sake,” Cunningham continued. “We have the technological capability to un-wilderness every square inch of the planet. Wilderness is an opportunity where we as a society can show humility and restraint.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.