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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How about you, Jared? What pushed you toward wilderness advocacy?

JW: The first designated wilderness area I encountered was the Absaroka-Beartooth, that high, granitic plateau just full of clean, sparkling-blue lakes and cutthroat trout that are already jumping on your fly rod before you can even tie a fly on. A place that has that power, I knew it was worth dedicating my career towards trying to acquire a few other places through a citizen, democratic process. That was really, for me, a powerful place.

How critical do you think that citizen-driven process is for wilderness?

JW: Smoke had a front-row seat to the first time that happened with the Scapegoat addition to the Bob Marshall. I think that was a turning point in the whole wilderness process … In a way, for these bills to move forward, you sort of need a Lorax, to quote Dr. Seuss. Someone who deeply cares about a certain place. And when you have that person on the ground who’s committed and passionate and is able to dedicate time and energy, you have a lot better chance of moving just a pipe dream to passing a law that will forever protect it for the next generation. You really need that boots-on-the-ground advocate. Even today, the bills that are out there in Congress right now—the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, Sen. Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act—they all have those pieces, so that tradition continues to move forward.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Arnold “Smoke” Elser

I’m glad you brought those bills up. Fifty years in, Montana has two bills with wilderness designations that can’t seem to garner the support necessary to get through Congress. It seems like any wilderness proposal faces this massively uphill battle now. Where do you see us now, at the 50-year mark?

JW: I don’t think the fact that these pieces of legislation haven’t passed through Congress is reflective of the work that’s gone into them, nor the relative support these bills have. It’s more a reflection of having the most dysfunctional Congress in the last 40 years. There’s a reason right now that people are fed up with Congress’ inability to move things forward. If these bills move through a Montana process here, then they should be able to move through a legislative process eventually. We’re still holding out hope that will happen. And I think the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would be a great birthday present for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. There are some landscapes in that bill that are just as deserving as the Bob Marshall was 50 years ago.

Smoke: I see us struggling with Congress, there’s no doubt about that. And right now, it’s hard to pick out a real leader like Lee Metcalf and some of those guys. Tom Edwards went all the way back to Washington, D.C. Here’s a man that never traveled that much. He was a school teacher and then went into outfitting, and he goes all the way back to Washington, D.C., and got up in front of the committee and said, “I’m an outfitter in Montana. I don’t sell fish, and I don’t sell elk … What I sell is the hush of the land. Guests come from all over the world just to experience the hush of the land.”

That’s what I try to sell when I go in the hills, and Tom taught me that. Many a night we’d sit around the campfire and we’d tell stories about the old days, and then there would be a time when everybody was pretty well storied out and they just looked into the coals of the campfire and watched the stars light up the sky and they knew they were there. Now it’s hard to get people to do that. That’s one of the problems we have right now.

Smoke, you seem to have hinted that there’s almost more of a need for wilderness now than before, what with losing ourselves in technology and the like. Do you think there’s more importance in wilderness these days?

Smoke: I feel there is. Whenever I testified on any of the committees—and I never went to Washington, D.C., but quite often they’d have hearings out here—a lot of people got up and said, “Oh, how can you destroy this beautiful country?” They would read poetry and talk about all that kind of thing. I testified a little differently. I asked the congressmen, “You know, wilderness may be more valuable than gold, silver, coal, timber. It may be more valuable to mankind than any of those products than we can take out of the wilderness now.” Actually, the product that we may need in the future is the sanity of man. Because [wilderness] gives man a chance to look within his own body, to understand what he’s doing, what he’s about. That’s the way I stood forever. That’s how I testified all the time. They were always talking about hauling all this stuff out of the backcountry. Maybe we ought to haul people in so they can get sanity.

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