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Sep 18 2018

Six Decades in the Making

1978 - 1987: MWA gets professional


On January 12th, 1978, Montana lost a wilderness champion when Senator Lee Metcalf, instrumental in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act and one of Montana’s true conservation heroes, died at his home in Helena. Metcalf’s death was keenly felt by conservation advocates in Montana and across the country. The respect that the Senator commanded ran deep, and his death left a void in the nascent environmental legislation. 

“He was one of only a few national leaders who foresaw this nation’s crises in natural resources, environmental protection, and energy,” noted Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. “And he was one of a handful of legislators who...before it became fashionable or politically acceptable, spoke out strongly and repeatedly for conservation and environmental protection legislation.”

It didn't take long, however, for the silver lining of Metcalf's death to become apparent. The senator had commanded immsense respect, and this compelled his colleagues in the Senate to honor him in the best way possible. When Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson asked Metcalf’s widow Donna how best to bolster Lee’s legacy, her response was simple: designate the Great Bear and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Areas. Metcalf had been working on securing Wilderness designation for both, and within months of his death, both received permanent protection, adding well over one million acres of wilderness to Montana’s ledger. 

The same year saw the passage of the Endangered American Wilderness Act (EAWA) and the subsequent designation of the 28,000-acre Welcome Creek Wilderness east of Missoula. EAWA was a response to the Forest Service’s Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE), an effort that had recommended just 12.3 of 55.9 million national roadless acres for wilderness designation and was quickly abandoned for failing to comply with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations. 

One year previously, the passage of the Montana Wilderness Study Act, also championed by Sen. Metcalf, had protected nine outstanding Montana wilderness candidate areas including the Big Snowies, Bluejoint, and Sapphire, totalling around one million acres. 40 years later, these areas have again taken center stage as members of our congressional delegation are seeking to remove the protections that have kept these areas wild for over 40 years. MWA is leading the fight to permanently protect our wilderness study areas so that our children and grandchildren can continue to enjoy the outstanding solitude and wild character that Sen. Metcalf fought to protect. 


"He was one of a handful of legislators who...before it became fashionable or politically acceptable, spoke out strongly and repeatedly for conservation and environmental protection legislation.” - Sen. Gaylord Nelson on Lee Metcalf


As the 1970s rolled into the 1980s, MWA began to take its first steps towards becoming a professional organization. Linda Stoll, the organization’s first employee, was hired in 1980 to expand MWA’s membership and lead letter-writing campaigns. In that same year, the Forest Service designated the Rattlesnake Wilderness and acted on the long-running campaign of former president Doris Milner’s to protect the Magruder Corridor, designating it part of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The addition created a nearly unbroken area of 3.5 million acres spanning the Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Areas, the biggest wilderness outside of Alaska.

A wilderness of a new kind took center stage in 1982. Facing the threat of large-scale logging projects on the west side of the Mission Range, Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal members led by Thurman Trosper - a former Marine, Forest Service supervisor, and Wilderness Society board president - took steps to protect their ancestral land, a large parcel of which was contained within the federally managed Mission Range Roadless Area. After formally protesting this federal designation, working to find common ground with the managing agency, and listening to an impassioned speech by three yayas (tribal grandmothers), the Tribal Council drafted and approved Ordinance 79A, thereby creating the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness. Adjacent to the federally managed Mission Mountains Wilderness protecting the east side of the range, the Tribal Wilderness was the first tribally established and administered wilderness area in the country, and the only wilderness with a stated purpose of preserving tribal culture. 

At the same time, MWA's second employee Susan Bryan came on as office manager. A jack of all trades, she was instrumental in expanding the programs that have become the foundation of the organization, most notably Wilderness Walks. She would be joined three years later by Conservation Director John Gatchell who, 33 years later, is a certified Montana conservation legend and still serving MWA as senior conservation advisor. 

Of course, Montana Wilderness Association’s third decade couldn’t end without a final nod to Senator Metcalf. In 1983, Ronald Reagan put pen to paper to confirm Congress’s designation of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in southwest Montana. Five years after his death, the senator was memorialized by a landscape of deep canyons and tall peaks, a fitting tribute to a man who worked tirelessly to protect Montana’s wildlands long before "it became fashionable or politically acceptable." 

- Alex Blackmer, MWA communications coordinator