Lay of the land 

As the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act approaches, advocates are already facing the next half-century's challenges

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It’s daunting.

Smoke: And everybody’s got a cellphone now. Geez, I don’t have one. Don’t carry one at all.

When you testified back in 1960, what was the atmosphere like in Montana around the Wilderness Act?

Smoke: It wasn’t near as much a battle here as it was in other states. The Wilderness Act itself actually started in Kalispell and Missoula. [Advocates like] Howard Zahniser came to Montana to talk to residents of Montana who already knew what wilderness looked like and already had felt the issues of wilderness. Those guys came out here, because here they had a good, substantial constituency to help them get such a bill passed. They came many, many times after that to get our view.

I was a young kid from Ohio, near Cleveland. Highly industrial area, Youngstown country. When I got here to Montana, by golly, I couldn’t believe it. And then Tom Edwards kind of took me under his wing, and Howard Copenhaver, and they showed me the backcountry. As they rode down the trails, they didn’t just sit on their horse and say, “Oh, look at that pretty valley, look at this pretty valley, look at that tree.” No, they interpreted that to me. They said, “Hey, look at this valley. I remember when we shot a big grizzly up that valley,” or “I remember when we shot elk up that valley, and I remember when we could lay on our bellies and drink water out of any stream in the Bob Marshall.” You don’t dare to do that anymore. Giardia is everywhere. I can still see Howard Copenhaver—there’s a red bugle hanging right there, that red hose—I can remember him sticking that hose in an elk track that was full of water and getting a good drink of water out of there.

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Good way to get beaver fever these days.

Smoke: Ha, yes. In those days, no problem.

Jared White: Smoke, what you were saying about how Montana was an important place for wilderness—I wasn’t around in those days, but all my reading and research and work on wilderness has led me to that same leap, that Montana was sort of a cradle of wilderness. We had Congressman Lee Metcalf, and he was one of the original sponsors of the Wilderness Act. Western lawmakers were pushing this thing … When they set aside the 1964 Wilderness Act, they basically said, “Hey, this is citizen legislation that’s going to enable democratic process to take place where citizens can basically step forward and advocate for their backyard, as opposed to the Forest Service being able to decide what happens administratively.” This is the first place in America that happened, and that was the Scapegoat Wilderness.

Smoke: That’s right. In the ’40s, the Forest Service set it aside as just a primitive area, meaning anytime we want to change our minds about how we’re going to treat that land, they can do that. But when it became a law, that made a difference. That made a difference.

You talk about going out with Edwards and Copenhaver as a youngster from Ohio. Was there any singular moment in those first trips that you still carry, that motivates your advocacy?

Smoke: Yeah, many of them. For instance, to have the head of a large corporation run around and smell ponderosa pine trees, right into the bark. You know, it smells like vanilla. Here I’ve got a guy who’s probably worth millions and he’s smelling the bark. And to have a lady that was really well-to-do with the General Motors corporation walk in grass, first time ever, in her bare feet … I get letters yet from people saying, “Gee, that was the greatest experience I’ve ever had.”

Yeah, but was there a particular moment that made these wild places special to you personally?

Smoke: The first time I went into the Danaher Valley. To know that in 1900, a man went in there and tried to homestead unsuccessfully … To know that somebody tried to make a living there and couldn’t because it was so wild, so absolutely untamed by man.

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