We were saddened to learn that Wilderness Watch founder, Montana native and legendary conservationist Bill Worf died of natural causes at his Missoula home Dec. 21. Worf, 85, "was the father of wilderness stewardship," says Wilderness Watch Executive Director George Nickas. "Bill was there on the ground when wilderness management got started."
Worf was one of the conservation movement's old guard, a handful of stubborn populists and visionary preservationists who fought often-bitter battles to ensure the country's wild and forested places remain that way for all Americans rather than a profit-driven few. "That kind of willingness to defend the public interest against powerful interests doesn't exist in the government right now," says Nickas.
When the United States Forest Service hired Worf in 1950, he quickly got to work curbing overgrazing on Utah's Uinta National Forest. Locals in his adopted community of Heber weren't pleased that an interloper was ordering them to reel in their cattle. Shop owners refused service to the Worf family, forcing them to make the 60-mile round trip to Provo for supplies. "That's the kind of heat that forest rangers used to have to take in order to be good stewards of the land," Nickas says.
In 1961, when the Forest Service appointed Worf supervisor of the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming's Wind River Range, he grew increasingly enamored with the idea of keeping wild lands unscarred forever. So he worked to draft the nation's first wilderness management program and advocated for passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
After the 1964 act became law, the Forest Service had Worf pen policies to implement the legislation. The National Wilderness Preservation System now protects 109 million acres from Alaska to New Mexico and South Carolina to New York. Montana's share is 3.4 million acres that roll across the Lincoln-Scapegoat, Bob Marshall and Selway-Bitterroot wildernesses.
"Most of the policies and regulations that he wrote are still in force," Nickas says
Worf wasn't ready to give up the fight when he retired from the Forest Service in 1983. In 1989, he helped found Wilderness Watch, a national nonprofit that today remains a watchdog dedicated to ensuring Worf's vision remains intact for future generations. "Bill just always believed that if you set your mind to do something and what you were doing was right, you can get it done," Nickas says.
"It's just amazing what he accomplished."