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Oct 20 2020

“You Can’t Talk About Montana Conservation Without Talking About Gatch”

John Gatchell is retiring after 35 years with MWA

Back in the ‘70s, John Gatchell was living in the Swan Valley, logging, building log homes, and carpooling to MWA chapter meetings in Kalispell. On these drives, he’d stop by Forest Service offices to try and discover why the Swan Range hadn’t been recommended for Wilderness designation in the “infamously-biased” Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE II) process. 

“They couldn’t tell me,” says Gatchell. “They couldn’t give me a good answer and kept shuffling me from office to office, trying to get rid of me. I left those offices realizing there’s something wrong with how we take care of wild places.” 

He was never able to get a straight answer from Forest Service personnel back then, but that didn’t slow him down one bit. In the decades since, Gatchell has leveraged his knowledge, passion, and penchant for innovation to write a new playbook for protecting Montana’s wild places for good.

And now, after serving for 35 years as a volunteer, chapter president, state council member, conservation director, and senior conservation advisor, Gatch is retiring from MWA.

During his decades of service, Gatch has dramatically expanded the network of conservation advocates across Montana, often finding supporters in places you wouldn’t expect them, from timber mills in Libby to snowmobile clubs in Lincoln and Seeley Lake to ranching communities in Ovando.

“You really can’t talk about Montana conservation without talking about John Gatchell,” says MWA Deputy Director John Todd. “Gatch has his fingerprints on just about every landscape that we’re talking about and fighting for today. He’s really the godfather of modern Montana conservation, and he knows the state better than anyone. He can speak from experience about more than 30 million acres of public lands. Find someone else who can do that.” 

A look back at Gatch’s remarkable record proves just how instrumental he was to groundbreaking conservation initiatives across huge swathes of the state. 

One of his earliest projects was an effort to find common ground supporting Wilderness designation in northwest Montana, an area that’s long been perceived as being hostile to the idea of Wilderness. 

“Throughout the ‘80s, opponents had painted Wilderness as the end of timber workers’ jobs. That wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true today. So to combat that idea, we went right to organized timber workers in Libby, Thompson Falls, Superior, Frenchtown, Missoula, and Bonner to talk about Wilderness and jobs. We ended up signing the ground-breaking Kootenai and Lolo Forest Accords in 1990. It was the first agreement of its kind in the country. When timber workers supported Wilderness, the debate flipped almost overnight. It showed that Wilderness and timber jobs were compatible.” 

That willingness to wade into difficult situations, find common ground, and build solutions is typical of Gatch’s work, his indomitable spirit, and his endless optimism.

He was instrumental in the creation of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project, a coalition of conservationists, snowmobilers, loggers, outfitters, and local businesses that came together to find a durable solution for wild places that are home to the headwaters of the Blackfoot and Clearwater Rivers, key recreation areas, and critical for the economy of the areas around Seeley Lake and Ovando.

Gatch’s tireless leadership bore fruit in the summer of 2019 when, after 15 years of hard work, late nights, and tough conversations, that effort took a massive step forward when Senator Jon Tester introduced the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act

It’d take pages to document his full impact, but Gatch was likewise one of the driving forces behind, among much else, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, the Beaverhead Deerlodge Partnership, and the effort to defend wilderness study areas from suffering the biggest rollback of public land protections in Montana history. 

Most recently, Gatch helped develop the Lincoln Prosperity Proposal, which was made public earlier this year, by working side-by-side with community members from Lincoln. The product of years of meetings, hard-earned relationships, and tough conversations, the Proposal lays out a roadmap for the future of 200,000 acres of new Wilderness, conservation and recreation areas, and forest restoration areas along the Continental Divide near Lincoln.

Ask Gatchell what he’s most proud of, and he’ll almost certainly mention something about maintaining connectivity along the Continental Divide and the work he’s done to protect and stitch together the wild corridors through which the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) runs. The Lincoln Prosperity Proposal is a major step toward the goal of a completed and protected CDT, and it never would’ve happened without Gatch’s years of dedicated work in the area.  

“He’s really a legend when it comes to collaborative work,” says MWA Conservation Director Amy Robinson. “Gatch really helped us, as a state, get past the timber wars to a place where loggers and conservationists could work together, and he set the stage for the work we do today.” 

“He played a huge role in transforming MWA into a savvy, collaborative group,” echoes Todd. “He played such a big role in helping us transition to the model we use today. He really believed in the idea that ‘To get this stuff done, we’ve got to start working with other groups.’”

For Gatchell, the belief in working together has always been strategic and the goal clear: protecting more wilderness.

“Look, we’ve demonstrated time and time again that the polarity that some elected officials try to sell isn’t real,” he says. “We can create partnerships, break down barriers, and build support, and it’s on our elected officials to recognize and act on that support. Partnerships make (designating Wilderness) possible and politically viable, but we need to elect people that support public land partnerships.

“At the same time, the belief in working together, in helping your neighbors - that’s the kind of Montana I raised my kids in.”

That’s not to say that collaboration was Gatch’s only answer. Sometimes, protecting wild places requires a more aggressive approach. 

“Collaboration is one tool in our toolbox,” he says. “You can’t be afraid to be tough when you need to be. What we have (wilderness) is rare, and too damn little of it is protected, so we have a lot of work to do. We have every opportunity to be strategic and find creative solutions.”

Todd and Robinson agree that, in addition to his commitment to doing the difficult work of building relationships, Gatch’s passion for protecting wild places is one of the things that has made him such an effective advocate. 

“Gatch is always up for getting fiery,” laughed Robinson. “He’s always inserted passion into our work, coming into a meeting all fired up. He’ll start swearing, doing his Gatch things, and getting the rest of us fired up too. His combination of an open heart and strong commitment to advocacy is really special, and it’s made him such a powerful Wilderness advocate.”

“You can always count on Gatch to give you a kick in the pants,” agreed Todd. “He’ll be really clear that ‘This isn’t the time to back down, we have to take the fight to them here.’” 

Todd also recalls one particularly difficult meeting when Gatch’s passion and leadership stood out.

“He brought us all together and said ‘We’ve been here before, we’ve done this before, and we’ve come out stronger. We’ve got to get ready for a fight, but we’ll get through this. We’ve got to buckle down, but we’ve got to stay positive. Don’t you dare lose hope, don’t quit now.’

“It was such a moving and impactful speech. Gatch’s experience counted for so much. That’s something that’s just irreplaceable.”

If you ask him about his own accomplishments, Gatchell will probably turn to more esoteric things: forest planning, in particular. Maybe it’s due to his early efforts to discover the reason behind the lack of Wilderness recommendations in the Swan Range.

“I’m really proud of the way we’ve organized to change the way the Forest Service manages wild places,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a ton of work to do, but it’s so important that the Forest Service take its stewardship responsibility seriously. It has such a bigger responsibility than just working on roads and motorized issues. We have to assert the fact that we need wild places, we need Wilderness, and the Forest Service has to be responsive to that.”

With a chuckle, Robinson confirms Gatchell’s unusual zest for vital but unsexy administrative processes.

“He’s always excited about forest planning,” she said. “He’s helped me see the possibility and the potential in the process, and he’s always open to learning, to shifting his approach so that we can be the most effective advocates for wild places on our national forests.”

Talking to Gatchell for just a few minutes, it becomes clear that the hard work of protecting Montana’s wild places is underpinned by an unshakeable love. 

“When you step into wild country, get offline, off road, and into the wild places, you have this feeling, you just know that we need those places,” he says. “We need wild country available to us. We need a lot of it. We need that space, that opportunity, and I don’t think it’s ever been more clear. When I first started volunteering for MWA and working to protect these places, it felt so true to me, more true than anything I’d ever done. Preserving wild places felt like what I wanted to do, more and more and more.”

Gatch, you’ve done more than anyone can really know. You’ve inspired untold numbers of folks to stand up for the wild places that we love, and you’ve shown us all that individuals can make all the difference. We can’t thank you enough. 

We’ll miss seeing you in the office every day, but we know you’ll keep it wild.

Happy trails, Gatch. We’ll see you out there.

If you’d like to celebrate Gatch’s legendary contributions to Montana’s Wilderness with a contribution to support the next generation of conservation leaders, make a donation here. You’ll have the chance to write a note of congratulations, which we’ll pass along to John.

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Alex Blackmer
Communications Manager

Alex supports MWA's communications strategy, campaigns, and programs across the state. You can find him exploring Montana's best skiing, biking, climbing, and backpacking.
Email Alex