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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Oct 05 2016

Teaching the Wild

Facing terminal cancer, retired UM professor Bob Ream reflects on a life inspiring students to speak up for wild places

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Editor's update: An inspiration to a generation of biologists, public land managers, conservationists, and others, Bob Ream passed away on March 22, 2017. The following is a blog post we published last year in tribute to him.

In June, Garry Oye left his home in Mammoth Lakes, California and arrived two days later at Bob Ream’s front door in Helena’s historic west-side neighborhood. He traveled a thousand miles to offer a few words of gratitude to his former teacher, who had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

It had been years since Gary visited with Bob, and he knew he had to say thank you before it was too late.

Gary first met Bob in 1977, when Gary was a student of Bob’s in the Wilderness and Civilization program at the University of Montana.

“That program really set the course for my future,” Gary says.

Shortly before hearing about Bob’s cancer and traveling to Montana, Gary had completed a 36-year career with the United States Forest Service and National Park Service. He spent the final six years as division chief for wilderness at the Park Service, which manages nearly 44 million acres of wilderness from the Olympics to the Everglades, more than any other federal agency.

“What Bob taught us was that these places need advocates to stand up and speak for them . . . but that it’s also important to get out and let these places speak to your heart and soul, and that’s what I’ve done for the last 40 years.”

Gary sat with Bob in his living room catching up on their adventures and visiting about old times. He also did what he came to do.

“It was an incredible experience to look him the eye and tell him what he did for me,” Gary said. “He just seemed to light up.”

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Bob Ream’s former students often credit him with their love of wild country, so it’s fitting that Bob traces his first profound experience in nature to a remarkable teacher he had as a 15-year-old in Northern India. Bob’s father was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Bob, who had been born in the small town of Greenfield, Wisconsin, was enrolled at a boarding school on the edge of the Himalaya. There, he met a biologist who often took his students on long hikes to mountain reaches as high as 15,000 feet.

“That experience gave me a start in nature,” Bob explained on an August afternoon, during a day of rest between chemo sessions. “It was a sense of freedom. It was eye-opening.”

In 1955, Bob enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and supported himself through his first summer job at a Weyerhaeuser logging camp near Mount St. Helens, in Washington State. After four years, the young agronomy student began his graduate work in botany at the University of Utah, gathering a “mountain of data” on oak trees in the rugged Wasatch Mountains.

He eventually completed a Ph.D. at Wisconsin and a post-doc fellowship at the University of Denver before leaving academia for the backcountry. In 1966, he signed up with the Forest Service as a research ecologist and spent three consecutive summers deep in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, just a couple years after this million-acre hinterland became one of the first places protected under the Wilderness Act in 1964.

“For three years, we went in – 10 days on and four days off – from when the lakes weren’t frozen to when they froze over again,” he explained, with a quiet smile of recollection.

These summers spent exploring a vast landscape, so recently protected by Congress, tuned the young ecologist into the politics of wild places. “It gave me a stronger appreciation for the wilderness system itself and how it came about . . . it got me deeper into capital W wilderness.”

In 1969, Bob took a job as a professor in the School of Forestry at the University of Montana. Six years later, he called a meeting of forestry faculty, agency professionals, and wilderness activists at the university-owned Lubrecht Experimental Forest, located near the Bob Marshall Wilderness. There, he and several others gave birth to UM’s Wilderness Institute and the Wilderness and Civilization Program, both of which were formalized as part of Montana’s university system in 1976.
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“What Bob taught us was that these places need advocates to stand up and speak for them . . . but that it’s also important to get out and let these places speak to your heart and soul, and that’s what I’ve done for the last 40 years.”

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Bob became the program’s first director, and the program initiated its inaugural class far away from the classroom. Students were divided into four groups and sent to separate trailheads. Four faculty members led their groups into the heart of the Bob Marshall, where they learned to work together.

“That first trip is always bonding,” Bob explained. “As a teacher, I always wondered why some students were reluctant to speak up. I learned that it’s trust. We built that trust on those trips.”

This year, the Wilderness and Civilization program celebrates its 40th anniversary, and each new class still begins their studies with a very long walk into the Bob. A list of graduates now comprises hundreds of conservationists, including scientists, teachers, community organizers, land managers, and even elected officials. It's only fitting that Bob will be inducted this year into Montana's Outdoor Hall of Fame.

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Bob served the State of Montana as a university professor for 28 years. He also served as a lawmaker in the Montana House of Representatives for sixteen years and was appointed chair of the Board of Commissioners for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for four years.

When asked what sustained him across five decades of public service – what prevented him from burning out – he returned to his students. “I spent so much of my career working with young people. That made a difference.”

His eyes brightened, and, for moment, he seemed like he might even laugh at some inner thought. With a wry grin, he added, “In fact, I just wrote a grant for the program this year.”

The 80-year-old professor, afflicted with a terminal cancer and nearing the final days of his life, isn’t finished thinking about the future.

- Gabriel Furshong, MWA deputy director