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May 15 2014

A Tribute to Wilderness Legend Cecil Garland

Garland, who died on May 11th, pioneered a grassroots approach to wildland conservation that led to the Scapegoat Wilderness


Cecil Garland, storeowner, rancher, father, hunter, horseman and wilderness hero died this week near his home in southern Utah with his family by his side. He was 88 years old. A celebration of Cecil’s life will be held in Callao, Utah, on the weekend of September 6, 2014. In lieu of flowers, his family has requested that donations be sent to the Montana Wilderness Association at 80 S. Warren St., Helena, MT, 59601, or online at www.wildmontana.org/donate.

In the 50-year history of America’s wilderness, ordinary people with a passion for wild country have overcome great odds to secure enduring protection for the places they love. Many of these people were inspired by the example of a country storeowner from Lincoln, Montana, Cecil Garland, who took on influential men and powerful interests to forever protect Montana’s Scapegoat Wilderness. 

In 1972, after nearly a decade of struggle, the Scapegoat became the first citizen-established wilderness in the nation. 

The “Lincoln Back Country Wilderness Act” co-sponsored by Montana’s Republican Congressman James Battin and Democratic Senators Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf, was delayed for eight long years. Political opponents feared the precedent of allowing ordinary citizens to nominate areas for wilderness protection instead of relying on recommendations by the U.S. Forest Service, which was the customary process.

The full story of how a storeowner from Lincoln halted agency bulldozers and convinced Congress to permanently protect the Scapegoat Wilderness may be read here, courtesy of the Montana Discovery Foundation. A short profile of Cecil and his work on the Scapegoat may also be read here courtesy of High Country News.

Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to accompany Cecil and his daughter Becky on a flight over the Scapegoat Wilderness, a trip that offered Cecil one last view of his beloved Scapegoat Wilderness. He was overjoyed to see how beautiful and wild the country remained, pointing out his first camp near Ringeye Falls.

Cecil described his first experience at Ringeye when he testified at a congressional hearing for the “Lincoln Backcountry Wilderness Act” in 1968:

"When I first brought my family to the community of Lincoln, I was told of a great wild country to the north.

They told me with awe in their voices of places called Ringeye, Scotty Creek, Lost Pony, Red Mountain, the East Fork, The North Fork, Parker Lake, Meadow Lake, the Twin Lakes, and an almost unworldly country called Scapegoat and Half Moon Park.

I longed to see that country, to know its wild beauty, to catch its fish and to climb its mountains. Unusually wonderful it was then, when the time came to pack our camp and move away from roads that led back to the world we called civilization.

We camped that first night on a small bench above Ringeye Falls. Taking down our tent from an old frame the pack rats were using as a home, we made a secure camp, fed our stock, cooked supper, and turned our complete thoughts to our whereabouts.

We took from our duffle an old elk reed bugle, and as the chill air fell with the sun, we shattered the calm of that September evening with a blast from our elk call. Then, almost as by magic, above us on Red Mountain, a bull elk bugled his challenge that this was his territory . . . and over on Webb Lake Hill still another bull called back that this was his home.”

All through the frosty fall air the calls echoed back and forth and I knew that I had found wilderness. I would not sleep that night, for I was trying to convince myself that this was really so; that there really was wild country like this left and that somehow I had found it.

But all was not at peace in my heart for I knew that someday, for some unknown reason, man would try to destroy this country as man had altered and destroyed before.

That night I made a vow, that whatever the cost, for whatever the reason, I would do all that I could do to keep this country as wild as I had found it.”

Two years ago, over 600 people gathered in Lincoln to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Montana’s majestic Scapegoat Wilderness, which would never have been protected if not for Cecil’s backcountry vow.  

Sitting quietly in the crowd, smiling, was an older man in working overalls leaning on a walking stick. “I don’t want any plaques, awards or any kind of recognition,” Cecil said, after his last wilderness trip. “It’s enough to know the wilderness is still there, still populated by descendents of the elk we pursued. I know of no finer thing that we as people can do, than to preserve a wilderness like that.” 

- John Gatchell is the Conservation Director for the Montana Wilderness Association.  He writes from Helena.