Growing up in Montana, I was surrounded by wilderness. Yet I never set foot in a designated wilderness area until I was 14 and assigned to study earth science with a teacher named Dan O'Leary.
He was a passionate rock hound and a tough grader; even the smartest kids struggled to pass his class. While the students across the hall watched episodes of "Bill Nye the Science Guy," the ones in Mr. O'Leary's class could be overheard comparing minerals by porosity and density. His field trips were always adventures. We'd hike to abandoned stamp mills near mines or to crystal-digs in places known only to Mr. O'Leary and his cantankerous cousin, Red.
But these excursions were nothing compared to the trips that he led every summer into the 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness. Tales of these five-day marches seemed too fantastic to be believed, but I believed every one, and in the summer after my eighth grade year, I signed up for a spelunking adventure deep in the heart of "the Bob."
First, we had to learn how to climb, so for several weeks in July, we gathered inside the cavernous auditorium of the middle school where we practiced ascending and rappelling from rigging above the stage. When we finally boarded a yellow school bus for the four-hour ride to the trailhead, we felt like Eagle Scouts under the tutelage of Indiana Jones.
The trip lived up to its billing. We summited Silvertip Peak, developed blisters the size of silver dollars, and were nearly crushed inside a shallow cave when a massive ice column collapsed at my touch. That trip, I got hooked on the outdoors.
A decade later, I signed up for my first real job as a community organizer for the Montana Wilderness Association and relocated to Choteau, population 1,600, on the Rocky Mountain Front. There, I quickly learned about the decades of tension that accompany questions of wilderness conservation in Montana. I saw ranchers trembling with frustration as they described getting "burnt out" by the 1988 Cave Creek fire, which began in the Scapegoat Wilderness. I heard a tired hope in the voices of wilderness outfitters who had put their businesses on the line to protest oil and gas development throughout the '80s and '90s. As I listened, I sometimes wondered where Mr. O'Leary, the wilderness lover and mining buff, would plant his flag in this tricky conversation.
After a year on the job, I had a chance to ask him. He had traded in his chalk-dusted Dockers for a pair of cutoff jean shorts and was pounding up a local trail at a feverish pace. "I've seen your name in the paper," he bellowed, shaking my hand, when we met on the trail. "You took a job with the greenies!"
Suddenly, I had an idea where he might land on the wilderness question, but I politely reminded him who had set me on this path. "I love wilderness," he responded, a smile spreading across his face, "but I hate environmentalists."
For me, that memorable exchange suggests a new set of compass points for a state that has failed to designate a single new wilderness area in 30 years, the longest such span in the country. We need to find that sweet spot where a meaningful conservation agenda overlaps with the state's long history of dependence on extractive industries. Somehow, we've got to bridge the gap.
Thousands of people across Montana have come to the same conclusion over the last several years, including members of our congressional delegation, who have sponsored two wilderness bills recently, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. These bills are the products of uncommon partnerships, the former between timber companies and conservation groups, and the latter between ranchers and sportsmen and women. Both bills maintain an approval rating among Montana citizens of greater than 70 percent.
As the nation begins to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act this year, parties are being planned across Montanain logging towns like Libby and Seeley Lake as well as urban centers like Missoula and Bozeman. It's been five years since I ran into Mr. O'Leary, but I think I'm going to invite him out to join the festivities. I'm not sure whether he'll accept, but when the bands begin to play, I expect to see a bunch of wilderness lovers like him swapping tall tales with a lot of "environmentalists" like me. After all, he helped inspire my love of wild country in the West.
Gabriel Furshong is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Missoula.