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Smoke Elser gives a demonstration during a packing clinic in Missoula in 2012.

Legendary outfitter, author and wilderness advocate Smoke Elser of Missoula was presented with the prestigious Legacy Award by the Back Country Horsemen of America on April 5 at the Back Country Horsemen of Montana state convention at Missoula’s Hilton Garden Inn.

Elser served on the state group’s board of directors for many years and has been a wilderness mule-packing outfitter and guide for more than 45 years. He is a voice for environmentally responsible equine use, and is a Leave No Trace master educator for the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Elser said he was honored by the award, because only three other people have received it.

“It means a heck of a lot because it’s one of four that have been given out by the Back Country Horsemen,” Elser said. “I was really surprised. There are a lot of people that do as much or more as I do.”

Back Country Horsemen of America is a nonprofit corporation made up of state organizations, affiliates, and at-large member that preserves the use of horses and stock in wilderness and public lands. They have donated millions of hours to clearing trails on U.S. Forest Service lands, among other projects.

The first Back Country Horsemen chapter started in Columbia Falls in 1973, and Elser brought a second group down to start a chapter in Missoula in 1974.

“We felt a long time ago, if we use the trails, by golly, we outta help maintain the trails and bridges and everything else in the backcountry,” Elser said. “We clear thousands of miles of trail every year. We build bridges and maintain water bars and help maintain and set up camps in the wilderness. It’s a volunteer organization and it’s a lot of service work.”

Elser said that most of the group’s efforts benefit the Forest Service, and through that agency the general public.

“The Forest Service’s budget has been slowly reduced over the years and the trails are slowly falling apart,” Elser explained. “And now our organization helps them every year, everywhere from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”


Over the years, Elser has been involved with the Ninemile Pack Train, the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, the Professional Wilderness Outfitters Association, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, and the Advisory Board of Elders for the Montana Wilderness Association. He is a member emeritus of the advisory board for the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana.

He has taught horse and mule packing to more than 4,000 students at the University of Montana since 1964. In 1980, he began teaching packing clinics through the U.S. Forest Service Ninemile Wildlands Training Center, where he has taught Navy SEALs, Fish and Wildlife Service employees, state game wardens, FBI agents and U.S. Border Patrol agents. He also co-authored a book about mule and horse packing.

Elser was also instrumental in the creation of the film “Untrammeled,” documenting a youth pack trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness led by members of Back Country Horsemen of Montana and the Forest Service. The film was produced for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and premiered at the University of Montana on Tuesday night.

“What the young people had to say about wilderness was the most important thing in that film,” Elser said. “They went in there as teenagers who wanted to have fun and they came out with serious thoughts about the natural resource of wilderness.”

Elser was nominated for the award by longtime friends and fellow horsemen Ken Ausk and Chuck Miller, members of the Missoula Back Country Horsemen.

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