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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Trekking the Untrammeled

The confession might come as a slight surprise to some in Montana: A Missoula high school student, standing deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, looks straight into the camera and states, “I literally didn’t know this existed.” It’s been 50 years since Congress passed the Wilderness Act, enabling citizens nationwide to fight for permanent protections for their most cherished wild spaces. And yet there are those who remain oblivious to the pristine beauty of backcountry expanses like the Bob.

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“This anniversary year provides a wonderful opportunity for us to re-affirm our commitment to wilderness stewardship and to engage the public, particularly youth, in opportunities for a better understanding and appreciation of wilderness benefits,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said earlier this year.

That’s largely why the Forest Service opted to send three contingents of young adults—two separate pack-strings of Missoula area high schoolers and a group of University of Montana backpackers—into the Montana backcountry to experience wilderness for, in many cases, the very first time. The agency also produced a film, in conjunction with a host of other groups, documenting those trips in the hopes of building interest and awareness in advance of the Wilderness Act’s Sept. 3 birthday. That 26-minute film, Untrammeled, is set to premiere at UM April 8 before embarking on a national tour.

“I think it’s important to remember that some of the target audience is kids in urban places,” says Julia Starrett, producer and co-owner of the Florence-based Starrett Productions, which shot the film. “It’s one thing here in Montana where we are exposed to a lot of the wilderness areas and we have a lot of this natural landscape. But if you’re a kid living in Chicago or Los Angeles, you don’t realize that you have this.”

Untrammeled depicts the sweeping and idyllic vision of the Bob one would expect in the midst of such a historic anniversary. Students lounge in alpine glades, weave together strands of wild grass, roast food over open flames; the entire undertaking was unscripted, says Shanenon Starrett, Julia’s husband and the film’s director.

“I also think that, visually, seeing a wilderness area from the inside out and hearing how it affects people, young people—hopefully that’s inspiring to other folks,” Shanenon says. “We take it for granted. If you’re in Washington, D.C., or kind of removed from wilderness and you see it as stats and data on a piece of paper, you don’t really realize what it does to a person’s psyche when you’re there.”

The Starretts leapt at the chance to secure the contract last year, partly for the opportunity of being allowed to film inside a wilderness boundary. The government rarely grants commercial filming permits in areas like the Bob, Shanenon says. Of course, following separate crews of students into the backcountry as an independent, isolated film crew presented its own logistical challenges. The backpacking portion alone entailed hauling camera gear 85 miles over 12 days, and Shanenon and the other photographers had to rely solely on solar power to charge their equipment.

“We had a lot of weight in our packs, and we knew the amount of time that it would take to do the whole thing,”

Shanenon says. “Our food, it had to have 100 calories per ounce or it didn’t make it into the pack.”

Late-season wildfires added one more layer of difficulty, prompting the Forest Service to reroute the student trips five times. Shanenon was originally looking forward to blue skies, breathtaking vistas and, particularly, capturing the reaction of students to their first view of the Chinese Wall. That iconic Bob Marshall site was dropped from the itinerary.

“It adds to the experience of being in a wild place, knowing that a huge swath of land is on fire now,” Shanenon says. “It added that sense of wilderness, for sure. You’re out there, anything can happen. Fire is one of those things.”

One of the Starretts’ primary mandates was to let wilderness be wilderness, an aspect most underscored in Untrammeled by freak injury. During the backpack trip, Shanenon happened to be following a pair of UM students hanging bear bags when one stumbled and fell, impaling a sandal-clad foot on a stick.

“It’s so amazing how one little thing can alter your whole experience being out there,” Shanenon says. “Even blisters.”

The screenings of Untrammeled come as just one of scores of events marking the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by government agencies, organizations and nonprofits across the country. Here in Montana, those events include a June 21 canoe trip on the Upper Missouri River guided by Adventures Worldwide, an Aug. 30 wilderness run in Lincoln and a late-September picnic in McCormick Park hosted by the Forest Service.

The Wilderness Act may have reached the half-century mark, but there are still many across the country who remain clueless as to the grandeur it protects.

“You go to an urban area or a big city and young people don’t even know it’s there,” Shanenon says. “It’s for them, it’s for us. It’s for all of us.”

Untrammeled debuts at the University Center Theater April 8 at 7 PM. For more 50th anniversary events, visit

This story was updated Friday, April 4 to clarify the Forest Service's production of Untrammeled.
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