The Man Who Loved Wilderness

Like many Montanans, I was lucky to call Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg my great friend as well as mentor, prod and inspiration. That this iconic Montanan crossed the Great Divide last week was a tremendous loss to all who cherish the preservation of wilderness for which he worked throughout his long life to preserve. And for the record, it should be made crystal clear that he had no use whatsoever for the collaborators and their industry-spawned collaborations that now pass for wilderness advocacy.

They say the good works we do in life live on after we’re gone and in Brandy’s case, that’s a mighty legacy. As head of the Wilderness Society, he was instrumental in writing and passing the Wilderness Act of 1964 into law. Thanks to his visionary work and the tightly drawn language of the act, 325 million Americans are the beneficiaries of the law that saves what’s left of our nation’s wildest lands and waters in a pristine state. As the act itself proclaims, wilderness is “untrammeled” by man, where one can still walk or ride a horse into the silence of the land assured that it will not be broken by the sights and sounds of what we call civilization.

Indeed, wilderness provides the nation with its cleanest air and water on which an abundance of plants, wildlife and fisheries rely — including many native species that have vanished from the developed and polluted environs they formerly inhabited. Here the forests grow, die, topple and decay without the manipulations of “managing” Mother Nature at which humans think they are so clever and are so often proved so wrong.

It was precisely the idea of keeping wilderness “hands off” that drove Brandy and his band of highly skilled and motivated advocates to work so hard in the halls of Washington, D.C., so that Montanans and all Americans could have the Bob Marshall, Great Bear, Mission, Beartooth, Scapegoat, Metcalf, Selway-Bitterroot and dozens of other true big “W” wilderness areas.

But late in life, Brandy saw a change take place in the wilderness movement that put a burden on his heart while stoking the undying wilderness fire in his belly. Starting in the ’90s, advocacy for wilderness took a turn for the worse as collaboration by so-called “stakeholders” was adopted as the path forward for future wilderness designations by organizations that had previously stood against the ever-encroaching demands of humanity.

The Wilderness Society, demeaning its name, has wandered far from the grassroots advocacy Brandy worked so hard to cultivate. Indeed, he was “booted” from his position at the Wilderness Society in 1976 because the board eschewed his grassroots approach in favor of chasing big money donors. The Montana Wilderness Association has followed suit along with a number of other former wilderness advocacy organizations and individuals.

Instead of fighting to save the nation’s dwindling wilderness-quality lands, these groups now cut up the pie with fellow collaborators to determine which industry or user group gets what. The timber industry, mountain bikers, and ranchers now get equal footing with wilderness preservation — and the results are meager. Recent examples include the Rocky Mountain Front bill, which made grazing without environmental analysis permanent, the failed Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which would have mandated annual logging levels, and the dormant Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act that hands thousands of acres of wilderness to mountain bikers and snowmobilers for recreation.

Though Brandy’s great heart is now stilled let there be no mistake — this great Montanan had no use for what he presciently called “the fuzzy, fuzzy Neverland of collaboration.”


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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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