GREAT FALLS – This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a piece of legislation that has led to the protection of more than 109.5 million acres of land in the United States and 3.4 million in Montana.
The Wilderness Act has shaped Montana’s landscape, but before and since its passage, many Montanans worked to shape the Wilderness Act and its enduring legacy.
Howard Zahniser, who drafted the Wilderness Act, once said there was no stronger support for wilderness than in Montana, according to the Montana Wilderness Association
The concept of wilderness was pioneered by Bob Marshall, for whom Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness is named, said John Gatchell, conservation director for MWA.
Marshall grew up in New York City but spent time in his youth exploring the Adirondack Mountains. Independently wealthy and with a master’s degree in forestry from Harvard University, Marshall moved to Montana at the age of 24 to work for the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest Experiment Station in Missoula, where he researched reproduction in forests after fires, according to Wilderness.net, a collaborative partnership between the University of Montana, the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute.
“While he was working for the Forest Service, every spare minute of his time was spent taking big, long hikes,” said Gene Sentz of Choteau, who has been advocating for wilderness for more than 40 years.
In 1935, Marshall, along with Aldo Leopold, founded the Wilderness Society, a national organization that helped establish the National Wilderness Preservation System and still works today to designate land as wilderness.
In 1924, Leopold, who worked as a district ranger with the Forest Service in the southwest United States, worked to establish the Gila Wilderness Area in New Mexico, according to the book “The Enduring Wilderness” by Doug Scott.
The wilderness was designated through an administrative order from a regional forester. Soon, other Forest Service staff followed suit, creating wilderness areas in their forests.
The problem with an agency setting aside wilderness was that it wasn’t an enduring designation, Gatchell said.
“What an agency could establish, it could unestablish,” he said.
In fact, Montana saw that come to pass when the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area was reduced in size.
Citizens saw the need for a more permanent protection that assured land could be passed from generation to generation without changes because of elections or the hiring of new forest supervisors.
“The strongest protection you can get is the protection of law,” Gatchell said.
It was from that idea of perpetual protection that the Wilderness Act of 1964 was born.
Since the act’s passage 50 years ago, the national wilderness system has grown to include 758 designated wilderness areas covering more than 109 million acres of land.
“You can see now that the Wilderness Act works exactly how it was intended,” Gatchell said. “Wilderness areas are not undesignated. They are cherished once they’re finally protected and they remain that way from generation to generation.
“They’re very special places to Montanans,” he added. “Montanans played a key leadership role in the passage of the Wilderness Act.”
As associate director of the Wilderness Society beginning in 1960, Stewart Brandborg was deep in the trenches of the efforts to pass the Wilderness Act.
“It was a tough uphill battle to contend with the oil, gas, mining, grazing and lumber interests of our nation,” he said.
However, Brandborg’s appreciation of wilderness began long before he went to work in Washington, D.C.
“I was raised in the Forest Service by a then-forest supervisor in Montana,” he said.
Brandborg’s father, Guy Brandborg, was the forest supervisor for the Bitterroot National Forest. The elder Brandborg resisted pressures from the Forest Service and timber industry to increase logging on public land and was in favor of giving all citizens a voice on how public lands are managed, according to the MWA. Brandborg’s mother also had a great interest in nature.
“They were quickly enlisted as supporters of the Wilderness Bill because of their appreciation for wild country,” Brandborg said.
Brandborg graduated from the University of Montana and then earned a master’s degree in forestry from the University of Idaho.
He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1954 to work for the National Wildlife Federation. He also served on the council for the Wilderness Society, until he took the position there as associate director.
Brandborg worked closely with the Wilderness Society’s director Howard Zahniser, who wrote the first draft of the Wilderness Bill.
“Zahniser drafted it on his dining room table at home on a lined tablet,” Brandborg said.
That draft was then given to key wilderness advocates, including Brandborg.
From there, it was introduced into the House and Senate, and an eight-yearlong battle began before its passage.
“It was probably the most comprehensively debated and discussed public lands legislations in history,” said Bill Cunningham, who worked for the Wilderness Society and now lives in Choteau.
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When the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964, 9.1 million acres making up 54 wilderness areas in 13 states were designated as wilderness.
In Montana, five wilderness areas were initially designated – the Anaconda Pintler, Bob Marshall, Cabinet Mountains, Gates of the Mountains and Selway-Bitterroot.
As passed, the bill only created wilderness on Forest Service land. The wilderness areas on National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land called for in the draft had to instead go through special authorization.
“That was a laborious process involving hearings by the administering agency,” Brandborg said.
Zahniser died of a coronary condition at the conclusion of a hearing on the bill. He passed away about four months before the Wilderness Act was signed into law.
After Zahniser’s death, Brandborg took over the post of director of the Wilderness Society and started working to get more wilderness areas designated.
Brandborg was 39 at the time and left with the monumental task of continuing the push for wilderness.
“I was a kid,” he said. “At that point, the guys in the conservation movement were all old. I was one of two or three young guys.”
The National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service had a 10-year deadline to propose wilderness areas to Congress.
“That forced me to build teams of people in some 40 odd states,” Brandborg said. “We scrambled to go to the grass-roots of people in each of those states.”
Brandborg used those grass-roots citizens to lobby their congressmen and local agencies for wilderness designations.
“All of a sudden Congress was flooded from these proposals that came from the agencies,” Brandborg said.
While agencies were proposing new areas to be designated as wilderness, citizens also started coming up with their own ideas about what should become wilderness.
In 1972, the nearly 240,000-acre Scapegoat Wilderness Area was designated, becoming the first citizen-designated wilderness in the nation.
That designation was monumental and continues to be, Cunningham said.
Eventually the group gained the support of then-Rep. Jim Battin and then Montana’s two senators at the time, Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf.
Montana also has the first tribal wilderness area designated on its own by a tribe, the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness, established in 1982 by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
In 1983, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness was designated, becoming the first wilderness area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. (One of the four units that makes up the Lee Metcalf Wilderness is managed by the BLM. The others are managed by the Forest Service.)
“Montana has really got a lot of firsts,” Cunningham said.
Even before the Wilderness Act came to be, the Montana Wilderness Association was established in 1958.
“MWA was very instrumental in the passage of the Wilderness Act,” said Gerry Jennings, vice president of MWA.
MWA was started by a couple of avid hunters from Bozeman who saw a need to preserve Montana’s wild areas.
For its first six years of existence, MWA worked to promote the passage of the Wilderness Act. After the act was signed into law, MWA began advocating for additional wilderness protection and still works toward that goal today.
MWA has several active campaigns for new wilderness areas or additions to existing areas, including the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would add 67,000 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
While Montana has more than 3.4 million acres of designated wilderness, there are still areas left out of the wilderness system that need to be protected, Cunningham said.
“That sounds pretty good, but we have a long way to go in Montana,” he said.
The last wilderness designation in Montana was the Lee Metcalf in 1983.
Three percent of Montana’s land mass is designated as wilderness, while 10 percent qualifies, Cunningham said.
“The Wilderness Bill is a wonderful thing, but it didn’t get the job done,” Brandborg said. “Some of the most precious wildlands are still being reviewed or citizens are working to get them dedicated.”
“The hazard of not having protection is the continuing intrusion of roads and other development,” he added. “The battle goes on.”