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Photo by Patrick Colleran
Jul 26 2018

Six Decades in the Making

1968 - 1977: MWA navigates changing times

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In 1972, 100 delegates gathered to hash out a new Constitution for the state of Montana. The new document replaced the original 1889 Constitution, which had been the law of the land since Montana’s ascendance to statehood in 1889, and began by paying tribute to “the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, (and) the vastness of our rolling plains”. The new Constitution also honored a “clean and healthful environment” among citizens’ inalienable rights. 

This language wasn't an accident. The new preamble was being written against a backdrop of rising environmental consciousness. The first Earth Day had brought together millions of Americans two years previously in a show of support for the health of the planet, the Environmental Protection Agency had been founded that same year, and Montanans of all stripes were coming together to push for environmental protection ranging from responsible logging and mining practices to clean air and water. Institutions like the Anaconda Mining Company were under pressure to clean up their operations, but a national energy crisis was also giving steam to an industry that was clamoring for increased domestic coal production and dam building.  

Facing threats to historical ranching country, blue-ribbon trout streams like the Kootenai and Blackfoot, and the Bob Marshall and Great Bear, MWA members and locals took action to protect these areas from strip mining and dam building. One of the lasting legacies of this period was the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was finally passed in 1968 after years of uncertainty.

In these same years, Montana's demographics began to change. The state was becoming more popular, and the influx of new residents brought with the usual attendant pressures. Perhaps the most well-known conflict of the period regarded the development of the Jack Creek area south of the Spanish Peaks in the Madison Range. MWA campaigners advocated strenuously for the preservation of the area’s wilderness character, but were ultimately unsuccessful - today, Jack Creek is best known as the site of Big Sky Resort, which opened in 1973.

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“We have fought the good fight together...generations to come will acclaim the combined efforts of Montanans, whether they be of the Montana Wilderness Association, the Congress, or other organizations, who fought to preserve the beautiful natural heritage which is ours." - Senator Lee Metcalf 

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The era was also marked by the rising prominence of wildland ecology - a powerful new part of the wilderness advocate’s toolkit - and an expanding legal framework to support conservation and land management. Both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (1970) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976) were enacted, establishing protocols that continue to be important parts of the forest planning and advocacy process. FLPMA also took steps to establish public ownership of lands other than national forests, most notably Bureau of Land management holdings. 

On the ground, the efforts to secure more protections for Montana’s wild places continued. After a long campaign championed by soon-to-be MWA President Cecil Garland, the Lincoln Backcountry was officially protected as the 240,000-acre Scapegoat Wilderness in 1972, following a protracted struggle between Montana Senators Mike Mansfield, then the Senate Majority Leader, and Lee Metcalf and Colorado’s famously anti-conservation Representative Wayne Aspinall. Famously, after the Scapegoat became the first citizen-driven Wilderness in the country, Aspinall told Garland of Mansfield, “Son, that’s one powerful Senator you’ve got.”

In 1975 and ‘76, four more Wilderness Areas were added to Montana’s ledger. Mission Mountains, Medicine Lake, Red Rock Lakes, and UL Bend gave Montana ten Wilderness Areas, but MWA members, led by Doris Milner, who became President in 1973, continued to advocate for the protection of important wild areas. The Magruder Corridor in the Selway-Bitterroot, the Absaroka-Beartooth area, Welcome Creek, the Jewel Basin, the Scotchmans, the Rocky Mountain Front, Montana’s Island Ranges, parts of the Madison Range, and the Great Bear were all the focus of MWA campaign efforts, many of which would soon begin to tell.

In 1972, the Forest Service began its Roadless Area Review and Evaluations (RARE) program, designed to identify potential Wilderness Areas on 56 million acres of roadless lands across the West. Disappointingly, just 12 of those 56 million acres were identified as having potential Wilderness value, leading Senator Metcalf to introduce the Montana Wilderness Study Bill, which was eventually signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. The Act incorporated one million acres into 9 Wilderness Study Areas.

Two years before the passage of the Wilderness Study Act, Lee Metcalf wrote a letter to Doris Milner:

“We have fought the good fight together...generations to come will acclaim the combined efforts of Montanans, whether they be of the Montana Wilderness Association, the Congress, or other organizations, who fought to preserve the beautiful natural heritage which is ours… (but) the fight goes on...You may be sure that I will continue to do all I can to hold the gains we have made and to build on them. I know I can count on the continued support of those Montanans who love the unspoiled beauty of our State to join in this important effort.”

- Alex Blackmer, MWA communications coordinator