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Photo by Patrick Colleran
May 25 2018

Six Decades in the Making

1958 - 1968: MWA Takes its First Steps

Around MWA, Featured

In the early months of 1958, two years after the initial draft of the Wilderness Act had appeared before Congress, a Bozeman husband and wife named Ken and Florence Baldwin mailed a letter to 100 friends and colleagues, inviting them to a meeting to discuss what the Baldwins saw as a fast-growing need for wilderness protection in the Madison and Gallatin Ranges. Southwest Montana’s high country was under increasing pressure from loggers and newly popular motorized recreation, and the Baldwins realized the importance of preserving large parcels of land as habitat for sheep, mountain goats, and elk. 

They weren’t alone in this realization. On March 28th, two weeks after the letter was mailed, some 20 people from across Montana gathered in a meeting room at Bozeman’s Baxter Hotel. These people - including fiery Lincoln General Store owner Cecil Garland, Montana State College geology professors Charlie Bradley and John Montagne, grizzly bear biologist John Craighead, and Kootenai tree farmer Winton Weydemeyer - would form the backbone of what would become Montana Wilderness Association. 

MWA’s mission was clear from the beginning. As Ken Baldwin, who would be the founding president, wrote after the meeting, 

“This Association is dedicated to making a place for all Americans to enjoy, to the fullest extent, the beauty and peacefulness of this ‘Land of the Shining Mountains’ where unspoiled wilderness, wild rivers, wild animals, fish in clean streams, and clean campgrounds are everywhere.

“We know that we have accepted a big assignment but we also know that it can be accomplished with the cooperation of all the people and organizations who will benefit from the work done. Our public lands can be a blessing to science, agriculture, industry, and recreation. Each has its place in the future of Montana, therefore we must plan and act together for the common interest.”

In MWA’s first decade, this “big assignment” would encompass three primary campaigns: advocacy for the passage of the Wilderness Act, efforts to preserve the area known as the Lincoln Backcountry (now the Scapegoat Wilderness), and a fight to redraw the boundaries of the Selway-Bitterroot wild area (soon to be Wilderness)  to include the Magruder Corridor, excluded by the Forest Service for timber harvesting. 

Montanans and MWA members were at the core of the national wilderness movement from the beginning. In the mid-1950s, freshly minted Congressman Lee Metcalf was one of the first sponsors of the Wilderness Act, and in 1959 MWA members testified for the Act at a hearing in Salt Lake City. Howard Zahneiser, the man who wrote the Wilderness Act, was an occasional attendee and speaker at MWA annual meetings. He declared Montana “the most supportive of wilderness” in the country. 

This support was telling, because the passage of the Wilderness Act wasn’t smooth sailing. Before the Act was passed in September of 1964, it was subject to countless field hearings, 18 Congressional hearings, and 66 drafts, but when signed into law, it immediately designated 1.5 million acres of Wilderness in Montana with names that are now part of our state’s fabric: Anaconda Pintler, Bob Marshall, Cabinet Mountains, Gates of the Mountains, and Selway-Bitterroot. 

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“This Association is dedicated to making a place for all Americans to enjoy, to the fullest extent, the beauty and peacefulness of this ‘Land of the Shining Mountains’ where unspoiled wilderness, wild rivers, wild animals, fish in clean streams, and clean campgrounds are everywhere. - Ken Baldwin, founder of MWA. 

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Before the Wilderness Act passed, the Forest Service had redrawn the boundaries of the Selway-Bitterroot to exclude the Magruder Corridor, a heavily timbered area on the southern edge of the then-wild area, from the impending Wilderness designation. This was seen as evidence that the Forest Service couldn’t be trusted to manage public lands for the public good. Doris Milner, a Hamilton resident, led other MWA members in a campaign that would eventually restore a quarter-million acres of Wilderness to the Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Areas, although the Magruder Road bisects the areas to this day.

Meanwhile, Forest Service projects were afoot to build an extensive road system north of Lincoln, in the area called the Lincoln Backcountry. This was the home territory of a local store owner (and Forest Service employee) named Cecil Garland, as well as outfitters like “Hobnail” Tom Edwards and Smoke Elser. The road plans, which Garland likened to “a plate of wet spaghetti”, would all but eliminate the wilderness south of the Bob Marshall, and the Forest Service was prepared to proceed without so much as a community meeting. 

The proposed development was met with strong resistance in Lincoln, and the opposition, with support from MWA, eventually prevailed upon the Forest Service, and Montana Senator Lee Metcalf, to halt the project. Wilderness designation for the Scapegoat was still years away, but the immediate threat of development had been halted.

Meanwhile, MWA was growing. The first unofficial Wilderness Walk was held in the summer of 1960, when Ken and Florence Baldwin led a group of 14 hikers into the Crazy Mountains, and by 1962 the program officially invited members to come along on hikes in the Spanish Peaks and Jewel Basin. By 1967, there were 28 Wilderness Walks and hundreds of participants. 

Wilderness Walks helped build support for these wild places, a reality reflected by MWA’s growing membership. By 1968, MWA counted nearly 400 members and 18 council members. The defense of wild places fell primarily on individual members, watchdogs for their own beloved areas, and while the core of the organization remained in Bozeman, members hailed from across the state and new chapters were formed in Great Falls in 1966 and Billings in 1967. With successes already under its belt and momentum building, MWA was on its way. 

- Alex Blackmer, MWA communications coordinator