BOZEMAN – Lew W. “Bill” Cook was born in Seattle on Feb. 11, 1927, the son of Safeway executive, Lew Cook, and his wife, Gertrude Wilkins. He attended local schools in San Francisco and the wine country of Northern California, and was admitted to Stanford University, but left during his freshman year to join the United States Navy in the latter days of World War II. Bill returned to Stanford, where he graduated with a major in economics and received a Phi Beta Kappa key.
His lifelong path was formed by his passion for ranching and land management, initially developed on his family’s Knight’s Valley sheep ranch, but later pursued and refined throughout the American West.
After purchasing and improving multiple properties in California, Bill moved to Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Not long after his purchase, Montana Power informed him they were going to build a major transmission line through his ranch. Bill declined to accept this decision, and waged an aggressive fight with the help of neighbors. Montana Power won that battle, but lost the war when the Montana state legislature passed the Sighting Bill, limiting rogue condemnations and formu-lating a lengthy process for ascertaining need and viability. During the course of that battle several state Supreme Court justices were retired.
While in the Bitterroot he raised sheep, attacked knapweed infestations, and fought coyotes. As losses from predation mounted, the United States government, in conjunction with the University of Montana, funded three years’ worth of meticulous research on Bill’s ranch, which proved beyond scientific doubt what most ranchers already knew: that coyotes did in fact kill sheep, killed them in large numbers, and did not select for the old and the sick.
Despite the evidence, however, liberal Eastern political constituencies continued to prevent effective predator control. Bill learned the hard lesson that facts didn’t matter if you don’t have the votes. Ten-eighty, a canine-specific poison that had been in extensive use, was banned. Lamb losses soared to as high as 30 or 40 percent.
With his breeding stock decimated, Bill packed up and headed to Arizona. Before he left, however, he posted sales notices in local papers: Coyotes win, ranchers lose. He predicted that when ranching became uneconomical, subdivision would take its place, weeds would return, and open space would be forever lost, the unintended but inevitable consequence of poor social and legislative priorities and decisions. He was soon proven right.
Once in Arizona, however, commercial property did not satisfy his soul. He soon began buying ranches again, but never again to raise sheep. Among his acquisitions was a ranch near Santa Fe, N.M., which became known simply as Cook Ranch.
In what had become a lifelong pattern, Bill did not seek controversy, but neither did he shrink from doing the right thing as he saw it. Soon he became embroiled in litigation to protect the water rights of the historic Galisteo Basin, in which his ranch was located. In the New West, water was the new gold, and the water rush was on, fought in courtrooms, not in the dusty streets, and requiring deep pockets instead of the traditional six-gun.
Cook Ranch became a favored location for the film industry because of the wide-open vistas Bill had preserved through judicious placement of roads and inconspicuous fencing. “Silverado,” now an iconic Western, was filmed there, followed by such perennial favorites as “Lonesome Dove,” “Buffalo Girls,” and “Wyatt Earp.”
The set burned to the ground during the filming of “Wild, Wild West,” when staged pyrotechnics raged out of control in the New Mexico wind. Afterwards letters of appreciation and condolence poured in from all over New Mexico, from men who had worked on the set and for whom it had been an economic blessing. They thanked Bill for the opportunity and spoke eloquently of what it meant to their communities. He treasured those letters.
When Montana began calling to him again, Bill purchased ranch land in Belgrade, the North Boulder, and in Park County. California also beckoned, with resultant acquisitions of several large cattle ranches in the oak tree-studded foothill country that rims the Great Central Valley.
Wherever he ranched, his land ethic prevailed: buy something inherently beautiful and fix the problems, often caused by ignorance and over-use. He frequently described himself as a well-paid junk man who had made a good living by picking up other people’s trash. Make it more beautiful, he would say, by rectifying erosion, over-grazing, and weed infestations. Use careful management: rotational grazing, appropriate pasture size, limited densities, and inconspicuous roads carefully engineered to avoid scars and erosion.
Above all, Bill was first and foremost a grass man, preaching endlessly that grass must be the foundation of the successful rancher’s world, that in a very real sense it held that world together. He also had the vision and the skills to accomplish the goals about which he taught.
Bill was an artist with a tractor and a backhoe, relishing the creative accomplishments of a hard day’s work. He was a mentor to employees, striving to lead by example, encouraging them to, “think outside the box,” and problem solve. He was as old-fashioned in values as he was new-fashioned in thinking; his word was his bond, and a handshake sealed a deal, though he knew how to negotiate a contract.
In Montana, Bill began and initially funded a nonprofit whose primary objective was making family farms and ranches sustainable. In Arizona, Bill and Marian, his wife, supported the Goldwater Institute’s legal challenges to preserve and protect the historic water rights of Tombstone, where access to aquifers had been denied by heavy-handed federal mandates and newly imposed wilderness areas. He saw these restrictions as emblematic of the growing threats to private property rights and encroachment upon traditional public access throughout the West.
Bill loved good art, good jazz, and he had an affinity for good, California wine. In addition to the beat-up ranch trucks, there was always a convertible in the garage, top down, and usually an Arabian mare in the barn. Always curious, always adventurous, Bill and Marian traveled around the world several times.
And Bill loved flying, which for him was as much of a spiritual experience as a mode of efficient business transportation. He wore out several small planes, racking up 10,000 hours of accident-free joy in the process.
On Oct. 13, 2012, Bill suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. He is survived by his wife and partner of 25 years, Marian Cook; his daughter, Nancy Cook of Missoula; his granddaughter, Sarah Kingston, of London, England; and his stepchildren, Ninon Tantet, of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Phillip Grossberger, of Paradise, Calif. He was predeceased by a second child, Cynthia Kingston, also of Missoula.
Bill saw clearly and well, and had a great heart. He was a man devoid of pretense, simultaneously complex and simple, gifted with insight and common sense. He will be greatly missed by those of us fortunate to know him and love him.
In lieu of flowers a donation may be sent to: The Bill and Marian Cook Foundation, Christian, Samson & Jones, 310 W. Spruce St., Missoula MT 59802.