Montana’s Visionary Conservationists

Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flatheads in Ross Hole by Charles Russell (1912)

It’s that time of year to be grateful for the good things, people and places in our lives.

And given how quickly our state is changing in these days of endless promotion and development, Montanans might want to give thanks for those visionary conservationists who saw what was coming, broke with those who claimed the riches of the land were “ours for the taking,” and dedicated themselves to conserving the natural wonders of this place we call home.

Charlie Russell, Montana’s most famous artist, was fully aware of how quickly the West was “being settled.” His massive 1912 painting, “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flatheads in Ross Hole,” majestically depicts that first early contact. But he also saw how the great herds of bison — and the Indians — were being exterminated to make way for plows, cows, railroads and mines.

He lamented the vast changes being wrought by “civilization” and once told a group of developers: “A pioneer is a man who turned all the grass upside down, strung bob-wire over the dust that was left, poisoned the water, cut down the trees, killed the Indian who owned the land and called it ‘progress.’  If I had my way, the land here would be like God made it, and none of you sons of bitches would be here at all.”

Decades later, a Montanan from the Bitterroot, Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg, would lead the Wilderness Society’s successful effort in Congress to pass the Wilderness Act of 1964. Until his death in 2018 at 93 years of age, he believed the battle for lands “untrammeled by man” via wilderness preservation was just that — a battle against the relentless extractive industries that callously called wilderness “a land of no use.”

The Wilderness Act opened the way for Montana’s visionary U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf, who served from 1961 until his death in 1978, to pass an incredible legacy of legislation, including designating nearly a million acres of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Metcalf’s Wilderness Study Act of 1977 designated “wilderness quality” lands across Montana and mandated that they be managed as wilderness until formally designated by Congress. Those wilderness study areas included 151,000 acres of the West Pioneers; 289,000 acres of the Beaverhead and Gallatin Taylor-Hilgard; 61,000 acres in the Bitterroots’ Blue Joint; 94,000 acres of the Sapphire Mountains; 34,000 acres of the Kootenai’s Ten Lakes; 81,000 acres of the Middle Fork of the Judith; and 91,000 acres of the Big Snowies.

Then there was Bud Lilly, arguably Montana’s most famous fly-fisherman, who grew up during the “catch and eat” years of the Great Depression but went on to champion today’s “catch and release” ethic. He wrote: “We had a fairly simple idea of waste. If we gave the fish to someone, or ate them ourselves, they weren’t wasted. It took a long time for most of us to figure out that there is more than one way to waste a fish.” He also led the effort to stop “put and take” hatchery stocking of our rivers and preserved Montana’s now world-famous “wild trout” fisheries.

These giants of conservation are gone but their legacies live on in the never-ending struggle against those who would “trammel” every last acre for a handful of silver.

You don’t have to go to a museum to see their work — just look around Montana and be thankful for the rivers, mountains and forests — and the vast array of fish and wildlife they conserved future generations.

And take Charlie Russell’s prescient warning for Montana’s future to heart: “Guard, protect and cherish your land, for there is no afterlife for a place that started out as Heaven.”

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