Stewart Brandborg, who fueled the national campaign to pass the Wilderness Act of 1964, has died at his home outside Hamilton at age 93.
“Brandy was a passionate and tireless advocate for protecting America’s wilderness,” Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams said in an email on Sunday. “His ability to mentor advocates and galvanize citizen action was unmatched. He took up the leadership of The Wilderness Society right after the untimely death of Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act, and Brandborg led the organization through a critical time for America’s conservation movement.
"His talents and passions, which never ebbed, have contributed greatly to conservation and preservation of America’s wilderness.”
Brandborg worked as a special assistant to Zahniser while the Wilderness Act was wending its way through Congress in the early 1960s. He traveled the nation encouraging local environmental and conservation groups to support the act, which was passed in 1964.
After that, he resumed the circuit to rally interest in new recommendations for future wilderness areas. He served as The Wilderness Society executive director during a period when Congress approved more than 70 federal wilderness areas in 31 states.
Born in 1925, Brandborg recalled meeting Bob Marshall and Gifford Pinchot before either man saw his name attached to a major wilderness area. Brandborg’s father, Guy, was Bitterroot National Forest supervisor during the U.S. Forest Service’s reassessment of its relationship with timber production.
Brandborg earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana in 1947 and a master’s in wildlife biology from the University of Idaho in 1951. His early professional work focused on mountain goats in the Flathead Alps at the head of the Sun River. UM commemorated his work in 2010 with an honorary doctorate.
In 1954, Brandborg moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the National Wildlife Federation. Zahniser brought him to The Wilderness Society as he was drafting the text that would become the Wilderness Act. Zahniser died four months before President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill.
Retired journalist and longtime friend Dale Burk recalled how Brandborg’s unwavering political will nevertheless could adapt to change. The final hurdle to the Wilderness Bill’s passage was the objection of Rep. Wayne Aspinall, R-Colorado, who fought the draft bill’s plan to let federal agencies designate wilderness areas. The final bill gave that authority to Congress.
“Looking back, it ended up being a serendipity thing although I don’t think they saw it that way at the time,” Burk said of the compromise. “Shortly afterward, the act was interpreted in a way that a citizen group could literally ask a congressman to carry a wilderness bill (instead of waiting for an agency to recommend it).
"And the first such bill passed by Congress was the Lincoln-Scapegoat bill (which added the Scapegoat Wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in 1972). Stewart was one of the people in leadership who took that opportunity and immediately put it to work.”
That work involved thousands of hours and miles visiting small groups and getting them to send letters to congressional delegations. Burk said few people know Brandborg used the same tactic to help civil rights organizations fight racism and discrimination before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
Daughter Betsy Brandborg recalled that growing up with someone so dedicated to grassroots organizing had unusual benefits. On one five-day summer road trip from Washington, D.C., to Montana, the family realized they’d forgotten their dog, Sukey, during a pit stop by a giant buffalo statue in South Dakota.
Their dad had a meeting to get to and lacked time to drive back several hours. However, he’d spent so much time barnstorming the area, he found a small airport and hired a pilot to fly him back to Jamestown and recover the dog.
“We called the police and they said Sukey was guarding a garbage can by the big buffalo,” Betsy said. “He hopped in the plane, met the police at the airport, they took him to the buffalo, he picked up Sukey, and flew back. There was a certain amount of chaos in our family, really fun chaos.”
In 1977, Brandborg moved to the National Park Service, where he worked on the legislation that protected more than 100 million acres of public land in Alaska in 1980. Six years later, he moved back to the Bitterroot Valley, where he helped found activist organizations Friends of the Bitterroot and Bitterrooters for Planning.
“He understood how to wield political power very well and he did it for decades,” said Carlotta Grandstaff, Brandborg’s neighbor and former Ravalli County commissioner. “His greatest talent was in motivating people to do what they thought they could not do. I feel like I’m not really grieving for him right now because he would not want me to waste my time. He would want me to do something. He was always asking ‘What are you going to do to make things better?’”
There were some things Brandborg would not do. He stood apart from many wilderness advocates, including The Wilderness Society, in his refusal to support collaborative projects combining timber harvest and wildland designation.
He opposed Democrat Sen. Jon Tester’s two recent attempts to add wilderness in western Montana and the bills of Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte to remove thousands of acres of federal Wilderness Study Areas from wilderness-quality management.
Even in declining health, Brandborg spoke like a man with one more chance to persuade someone. Burk compared it to cramming everything he wanted to say into a single paragraph, often without punctuation.
“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,” Brandborg told the Missoulian on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014. “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.”